Sunday, November 3, 2013

WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, by Grace Lin

 
1.      BIBLIOGRAPHY
Lin, Grace.  (2009).  Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.  New York:  Little Brown and Co.
ISBN 978-0-316-11427-1

2.  PLOT SUMMARY

Minli is a poor girl who wants to make her mother happy by changing their fortune.  She sets off to find the Man on the Moon so she can find out how to do so.  Along the way, she befriends a flightless dragon, problem solves many puzzles, makes friends with a village of thankful, happy people and hears many, many stories of different characters that all weave together to create the backbone of the story.  She reaches the Man on the Moon and can only ask one question, so she asks why her friend the dragon cannot fly.  Because of her selfless question, a series of events occur that bless her village and the entire kingdom.

3.      CRITICAL ANALYSIS

Grace Lin has created a story that blends Chinese folktales into a story of an action-oriented, quick-thinking little girl named Minli.  Lin uses beautiful illustrations and stories within her story to create a mystical tone in a world of magic.  “The Story of the Old Man of the Moon” is one example of a story told within the larger tale that pushes the plot forward while introducing new information we are almost unaware of until later, all while using a lilting story-telling cadence, as seen in the line, “Once there was a magistrate who was quite powerful and proud.  He was so proud that he demanded constant respect from his people” (18).  We never meet the Magistrate in the story, at least not as a human, but we see him so often in the stories told that he is very much an important character in this story.  We do meet his great-great-great grandson, but never the man himself.  This interesting device of story-telling reduces some tension in the story, because it is not unfolding immediately in front of our eyes, but is being portrayed by someone else in the story to Minli.  However, the beauty in the storytelling itself propels the story forward with more grace than a series of action-scenes would be able to do.

At first, all the stories and the strange characters she meets may seem unrelated and possibly confusing to people used to reading only Western-style literature.  Our notes state, “The narrative structure of Asian Pacific American literature is often very different from what we are used to with more ‘western’ narratives. They are often non-linear and do not necessarily have a beginning, middle, and an end.”  In the case of Lin’s book, there is a definite beginning, middle and end, and there is definitely a problem that needs solving, but the constant introduction of stories within the story give the whole book a very non-linear feeling, an idea that we could veer off the storyline at any point. It is only later near the ending of the book that we see how skillfully all the seemingly random information has been woven together to create an amazing unified story.  Details within the story that seemed unimportant turn out to play an important role in the plot, such as the secret of happiness written on a single sheet of paper on page 82 that the Magistrate demanded from the happy village. 

The theme of thankfulness is cleverly woven throughout the book, from the villagers who are so happy to the contented boy with the buffalo who refuses Minli’s coin.  Minli sees the word “Thankfulness” written over and over on the borrowed page when the Man on the Moon has sewn it back into his book (250).  But it is Ma’s transformation that really cements the theme of the importance of being grateful for what one has.  Ma has always begrudged Ba’s stories, believing they filled Minli with impossible dreams and foolish hope.  But she tells Ba a story to apologize, and says, “She was at last able to see that her daughter’s laughter and love could not be improved by having the finest clothes or jewels; that joy had been in her home like a gift waiting to be opened” (254).  It is a very moving portion of the story.

Vardell also states, “Kids who are used to reading “American” books may find literature by Asian Pacific American authors ‘boring’ or ‘slow’ because the stories may not begin with the usual action and conflict. Instead, we often meet the characters or get introduced to the setting as the author sets the stage or creates the story world.”  This is the case with Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.  The story begins by clearly describing the gray, dull world Minli lives in before bringing in the Goldfish man that changes the course of events when Minli opts to spend her coin on fish—one who happens to talk.

“Despite the vast geographic, demographic and cultural differences, Asian Americans share a deeply rooted heritage of honoring family, tradition, and the telling of stories as a way to perpetuate these values” (Smolen and Oswald, 154).  Ms. Lin’s book uses stories within a story that does indeed honor the family and tradition, by drawing on a rich tradition of Chinese folktales to create her world. 

The colorful illustrations contribute to the sense of beauty and mystery in her world and add to the Asian-Pacific cultural influence.  The illustrations are detailed.  Full page illustrations are sprinkled throughout, complete with elaborate borders.  The colors in the panels are vivid, showing dark-haired characters in traditional garb such as kimonos.  They help readers visualize particularly magical, surreal scenes, such as when Minli finally sees the Old Man of the Moon sitting among all his red threads and clay figures (245).  Single color drawings, much simpler in design, begin each chapter, showing something related to the upcoming chapter like a preview.

Dr. Vardell reminds us that characters in Asian Pacific American literature should not be excessively obedient or passive and Minli certainly is not.  She does not flaunt disobedience, but when she leaves her note for Ma and Ba, she is very aware that they would not want her to go on her journey.  She signs it, “Love your obedient daughter,” but then thinks to herself, “The obedient part isn’t completely true…but it’s not false, either.  They didn’t say I couldn’t go, so I’m not being disobedient.”  The text continues with, “Still, Minli knew that wasn’t entirely right either, but she chooses to leave anyway.  She grabs hold of the possibility to change her family’s life.  For Minli, it’s about her family.  She is not seeking wealth for herself, but for her mother, and so does honor family throughout the story.

Many times on her journey, she solves problems and saves characters such as the flightless dragon.  She also receives help gracefully, such as from the content boy with a buffalo and the happy village who give her a coat before she goes up the mountain.  She is a strong female character, which is a positive quality in an Asian Pacific American book, as it “reflects an awareness of the changing status of women in society” (Vardell, quoting Aoki, 1992, pg. 122). 

The scope of the story is immense and the skill it took to ensure all the stories related to the conclusion is impressive.



4. REVIEW EXCERPT(S)

“*Starred Review* In this enchanted and enchanting adventure, Minli, whose name means quick thinking, lives with her desperately poor parents at the confluence of Fruitless Mountain and the Jade River. While her mother worries and complains about their lot, her father brightens their evenings with storytelling. One day, after a goldfish salesman promises that his wares will bring good luck, Minli spends one of her only two coins in an effort to help her family. After her mother ridicules what she believes to be a foolish purchase, Minli sets out to find the Old Man of the Moon, who, it is told, may impart the true secret to good fortune. Along the way, she finds excitement, danger, humor, magic, and wisdom, and she befriends a flightless dragon, a talking fish, and other companions and helpmates in her quest. With beautiful language, Lin creates a strong, memorable heroine and a mystical land. Stories, drawn from a rich history of Chinese folktales, weave throughout her narrative, deepening the sense of both the characters and the setting and smoothly furthering the plot. Children will embrace this accessible, timeless story about the evil of greed and the joy of gratitude. Lin's own full-color drawings open each chapter.” Booklist—May 1, 2009

“Gr 3-6-Living in the shadow of the Fruitless Mountain, Minli and her parents spend their days working in the rice fields, barely growing enough to feed themselves. Every night, Minli's father tells her stories about the Jade Dragon that keeps the mountain bare, the greedy and mean Magistrate Tiger, and the Old Man of the Moon who holds everyone's destiny. Determined to change her family's fortune, Minli sets out to find the Old Man of the Moon, urged on by a talking goldfish who gives her clues to complete her journey. Along the way she makes new friends including a flightless dragon and an orphan and proves her resourcefulness when she tricks a group of greedy monkeys and gets help from a king. Interwoven with Minli's quest are tales told by her father and by those she meets on the way. While these tales are original to Lin, many characters, settings, and themes are taken from traditional Chinese folklore. The author's writing is elegant, and her full-color illustrations are stunning. Minli's determination to help her family, as well as the grief her parents feel at her absence, is compelling and thoroughly human.”  School Library  Journal, July 1, 2009.

Award:  Newbery Honor Award 2010

5. CONNECTIONS
  •  Read other books by Grace Lin such as The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat.  Compare and contrast them as part of an author study.
  • Read informational books about Chinese culture and look for Chinese cultural markers in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.
  • Read Chinese folktales and compare them to this book.
  • Turn several of the stories-within-the-story into skits/plays.
  • Study and explore Grace Lin's website, which is at www.gracelin.com .

6.  PERSONAL REACTIONS

The book was slow at first.  I was reading it in chunks and I was puzzled by the way the little stories were included and seemed to have so little to do with each other.  After reading our module's notes, I realized that this is not unusual for Asian Pacific Literature.  But by the halfway point, I realized how everything was tying together and I was excited to see how everything would be woven together in the end.  I was not disappointed. It was an amazing feat to have all the various threads be so important to the story as a whole, and so interrelated.  I was very touched by the mother’s transformation and it is her character’s emotional journey that made me fall in love with this book.

Works Referenced:

Lin, Grace.  (2007). Year of the Dog. New York:  Little Brown Books for Young Readers.

Lin, Grace. (2008).  Year of the Rat. New York:  Little Brown Books for Young Readers.

Smolen, Lynn Atkinson and Ruth A. Oswald, ed.  (2011).  Multicultural Literature and Response:  Affirming Diverse Voices.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Libraries Unlimited.

Vardell, Sylvia.  (2008).  “Overview” Culture 5 Pacific Asian American Lit  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed November 2, 2013. 


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