The best books on China for young readers

Sigrid Schmalzer Author Of Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong's Work for Sustainable Farming
By Sigrid Schmalzer

Who am I?

I'm a historian of modern China who specializes in the history of science. My professional life revolves around teaching history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and writing academic books and articles—but my not-so-secret dream has always been to write for children. For the past decade, I've been a regular visitor to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Encouraged by a chance meeting with a publisher’s representative attending an event at the Carle, I decided to distill my academic book, Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China, into a children’s story. I’m proud that my fans now include elementary-school students…and at least one professional historian has admitted he read the kids’ version first! 


I wrote...

Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong's Work for Sustainable Farming

By Sigrid Schmalzer, Melanie Linden Chan (illustrator),

Book cover of Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong's Work for Sustainable Farming

What is my book about?

Moth and Wasp tells the story of a real Chinese scientist, Pu Zhelong, through the eyes of a fictional village boy—a composite character I created from people I interviewed who grew up in China during the Mao era (1949-1976). Melanie Chan’s illustrations bring the narrator’s memories to life while incorporating traditional Chinese folk art and elements of the Chinese written language.

Pu Zhelong was an insect scientist committed to serving the people by finding environmentally friendly and affordable ways to control agricultural pests. He personified the best of Maoist science, summed up in the phrase “bringing together soil and ocean”—that is, combining Chinese knowledge rooted in the countryside and Western scientific learning from overseas. In Moth and Wasp, the villagers are initially skeptical of Professor Pu’s proposal to breed and release parasitic wasps, natural enemies of the moths that destroy the rice plants. But the city-born scientist wins them over with his willingness to get his hands and feet dirty for the sake of protecting the crops. 

The books I picked & why

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My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder

By Nie Jun,

Book cover of My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder

Why this book?

This utterly charming collection of short stories by acclaimed cartoonist Nie Jun offers an insider’s glimpse into the alleys (hutong) of a Beijing neighborhood. Originally written for a Chinese audience, the book portrays a community that is quintessentially “old Beijing” and will be sweetly recognizable to anyone fortunate enough to have lived there in decades past: we see not only famous landmarks peeping out from behind the curved tile roofs of the classic courtyard-house (siheyuan) architecture, but also the green pillar mailboxes, low wooden courtyard chairs, bicycle repair stands, outdoor water spigots and washbasins, colorfully dressed old ladies dancing in the public square, and other authentic details that a book written for an international audience might not think to include.

The stories revolve around a young girl with an almost mystical connection to her quirky grandfather and are full of the kind of “everyday wonder” that every childhood should contain. 

My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder

By Nie Jun,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked My Beijing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A 2019 Batchelder Honor Book

Yu'er and her grandpa live in a small neighborhood in Beijing―and it's full of big personalities. There's a story around every corner, and each day has a hint of magic.

In one tale, Yu'er wants to swim in the Special Olympics, a sports competition for people with disabilities. But she and her grandpa don't have a pool! Their trick to help Yu'er practice wows the whole neighborhood. In another story, a friend takes Yu'er to a wild place full of musical insects. Later, Yu'er hears a special story about her grandparents. And in the final…


Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

By Grace Lin,

Book cover of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Why this book?

Winner of a Newbury Honor, this is the first installment in a trilogy of fantasy novels by Grace Lin, well known also for her many picture books and realistic middle-grade novels exploring Chinese-American heritage. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon tells the story of young Minli, who is seeking the Old Man of the Moon to bring good fortune to her family. Lin brilliantly fuses Chinese fairy tales and adventure stories with contemporary American fantasy; in its tempo and ornament the book evokes the Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West, but Minli will be as accessible to young readers as their favorite sister or bestie.

Readers already immersed in Chinese culture will feel right at home, while those less familiar will find in these pages a welcoming introduction. The drawings that grace the first page of each chapter are reminiscent of the Chinese folk art of paper-cutting (featured also in Moth and Wasp), and the ten full-page, full-color illustrations have the feel of lush Chinese tapestries. Don’t miss the meaningful afterword (titled “Behind the Story”), where Lin shares a bit of her own journey growing up in the United States and learning to appreciate her heritage—along with some of the real-life inspirations for the story elements and illustrations, collected over the course of her travels in China. 

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

By Grace Lin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Where the Mountain Meets the Moon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the valley of Fruitless mountain, a young girl named Minli lives in a ramshackle hut with her parents. While her father regales her with old folktales of the Jade Dragon and the Old Man in the Moon, Minli's mother chides him for filling her head with stories. But inspired by these stories, Minli spends one of her precious copper pennies on a beautiful goldfish, which is said to be able to change the fortune of the owner. Her mother reprimands her for the silly purchase, but, it pays off when the goldfish talks and offers to show her the…


Bronze and Sunflower

By Cao Wenxuan, Meilo So (illustrator),

Book cover of Bronze and Sunflower

Why this book?

Cao Wenxuan is a professor at Peking University and one of China’s most popular and esteemed writers of literature for children. Thanks to award-winning translator Helen Wang, this lyrical middle-grade novel is available in English. Set in the Chinese countryside during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bronze and Sunflower tells the story of a city girl, Sunflower, who accompanies her father when he is “sent down” to the countryside for political re-education. After her father dies in a drowning accident, Sunflower is taken in by the family of a mute boy named Bronze, whose disability keeps him apart from other villagers but enables a profound understanding of the natural world.

Sunflower and Bronze become like sister and brother, transcending social and communication barriers to form an unbreakable bond. The political turbulence of the Cultural Revolution shapes the narrative, but only at a distance: through the children’s eyes, the important things in life—friends, family, and the wonders of nature—take center stage. 

Bronze and Sunflower

By Cao Wenxuan, Meilo So (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Bronze and Sunflower as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A classic, heartwarming tale set to the backdrop of the Chinese cultural revolution, with the timeless feels of Eva Ibbotson's Journey to the River Sea.

A beautifully written, timeless tale by bestselling Chinese author Cao Wenxuan, winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award. When Sunflower, a young city girl, moves to the countryside, she grows to love the reed marsh lands - the endlessly flowing river, the friendly buffalo with their strong backs and shiny round heads, the sky that stretches on and on in its vastness. However, the days are long, and the little girl is lonely. Then she…


Little White Duck: A Childhood in China

By Na Liu, Andrés Vera Martínez (illustrator),

Book cover of Little White Duck: A Childhood in China

Why this book?

This graphic novel, based on the author’s own childhood experiences, offers a darker picture of life in 1970s China than I usually like to share with other Americans, whose view is often already bleak at best. But Little White Duck passes my nuance test: for every episode that strikes the reader as shockingly foreign, there is something that highlights the commonality of human experience. The story begins in 1976, when four-year-old Na attends a funeral for Chairman Mao with her grief-stricken parents. In the years that follow, Na’s life continues to be shaped by political campaigns: inspired by the heroic tales of Lei Feng, Na and her friend perform many acts of kindness, but their attempt to “save” some baby chicks ends badly.

Most poignant of all is the story of Na’s trip to visit her grandmother in the countryside, where Na comes face to face with profound social inequity. The great divide between urban and rural life (seen also in Bronze and Sunflower and Moth and Wasp) separates Na from her cousins, but sadly, there is no one like Bronze or Pu Zhelong to help Na bridge the gap. Illustrated by the author’s husband, the book offers an intimate and bittersweet portrait of Na Liu’s childhood in China. 

Little White Duck: A Childhood in China

By Na Liu, Andrés Vera Martínez (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Little White Duck as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The world is changing for two girls in China in the 1970s. Da Qin―Big Piano―and her younger sister, Xiao Qin―Little Piano―live in the city of Wuhan with their parents. For decades, China's government had kept the country separated from the rest of the world. When their country's leader, Chairman Mao, dies, new opportunities begin to emerge. Da Qin and Xiao Qin soon learn that their childhood will be much different than the upbringing their parents experienced.


Boxers & Saints

By Gene Luen Yang,

Book cover of Boxers & Saints

Why this book?

Bound and sold separately, Boxers and Saints are really two halves of a single graphic novel, best read in quick succession by readers mature enough to handle honest depictions of historical violence. Along with luminaries like Grace Lin, Gene Luen Yang is rightly celebrated for his contributions to children’s literature on Chinese-American themes—his American-Born Chinese is especially powerful in this regard. In contrast, these volumes are set in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Picking up Boxers, I was instantly immersed in the social and cultural tensions of northern Chinese villages circa 1900—and then I flipped to the back and found my Ph.D. advisor’s book on the Boxers first on the list of suggested readings. So that helps explain why Yang’s take on the Boxers speaks to me! In any case, Yang is to be applauded for capturing the subtleties of this difficult material.

The first volume follows a boy who joins the Boxers in their magic-fueled quest to rid China of “foreign devils”; the second takes up the story of a girl who joins a Christian church and, propelled by visions of Joan of Arc, throws her lot in with the Western missionaries. Nothing is simple about this history, and Yang rightly eschews easy answers for open questions on matters of deep ethical and political importance. 

Boxers & Saints

By Gene Luen Yang,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Boxers & Saints as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Boxers & Saints Boxed Set from Gene Luen Yang, one of the greatest comics storytellers alive, brings all his formidable talents to bear in this astonishing work.

In two volumes, Boxers & Saints tells two parallel stories. The first is of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy whose village is abused and plundered by Westerners claiming the role of missionaries. Little Bao, inspired by visions of the Chinese gods, joins a violent uprising against the Western interlopers. Against all odds, their grass-roots rebellion is successful.

But in the second volume, Yang lays out the opposite side of the conflict.…


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