Category Archives: WIWWAK

During the last two weeks I have experienced…

During the last two weeks, I have experienced a tremendous internal “paradigm shift” when it comes to issues regarding racial diversity within my workspace (a k-12 school.) Still forming thoughts and wrangling with what I held true for a long time and what I am starting to realize as inaccurate “read” on some of these issues. Suffice it to say that I was myopic in my view. Isn’t it ironic how I, a Chinese woman who belongs to the LARGEST population in the world, have been thinking of myself as a “minority” race simply because I’ve lived in the U.S.A. for the past 20 years and have taken on, without questioning much, a predominately white perspective? I’ve only seen myself as belonging to the 5% of Asians in the U.S. and not as belonging to the 20% of World population for being Chinese, or to the 50% for being an Asian. (The population of “white” is reported at under 20% worldwide, lower than African/of African descent.) So, when we promote the notion of a Global Perspective to our students, we need to keep using different lenses when interpreting world events, history, cultures, power agents, conflicts, etc. And this HAS everything to do with literature we publish for our young!

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March 30, 2012 · 11:53 am

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon: An Elegantly Written Book?

I started reading Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin, while it was still in galley form and had never been able to finish the book.  Friends in my Children’s Literature circle have heard from me for almost a year now how baffled I have been regarding the success of the book (a Newbery Honor) and the adoration of the book from so many reviewers, teachers, and librarians.

And today, I read this blog post from Story Sleuths in which the bloggers praise and analyze the strengths of the writing by Lin.  (This is only Part 1, and posted 4 days ago.  I imagine more posts will follow.)

Finally, I feel compelled and brave enough to share some counter points regarding this book.

I am going to focus on my reaction to the usage of words and phrases by the author and demonstrate how I am not convinced that this is an elegantly crafted volume.  (Although, as a woman who grew up in Taiwan and was exposed to countless Chinese folk tales in book, opera, TV forms, I have a lot of discomfort with Grace Lin’s appropriation of the stories she read as an American girl of Taiwanese descent — even if she made it clear that these are NOT simple retellings of the original stories but based on her views on how these stories COULD have been told.)

Now, I was already a bit annoyed by page 4 because of a personal pet peeve.

  • The book is set against a nondescript mystical China, by the way the village is described and the people are portrayed.  Yet, in this fantasy land, in “Ancient” China, Minli’s father replies to her request for a story with “Okay” — an unfortunate word choice that carries strong western and contemporary flavors.  (p. 4)  This is a strong personal pet peeve, as explained in my About Fantasy — Is it OK to say “Okay”? post.

Grace Lin really loves using the word “seemed” in delivering her descriptive sentences.  It occurs with such frequency that it becomes monotonous and because “seem” is such an uncertain word, it often weakens the impact of the imagery.  (p. 110 “… the silence of the room seemed to ache with loneliness.” p. 111 “She seemed to glow like a pearl…” p. 117 “light of the moon seemed to bind the magistrate still.” p. 140, “The king’s words seemed to hang in the air.”  p. 141, “The moon seemed to tremble…” and on and on… and in this one page, the narrative contains three “seemed” in three short paragraphs.

  • . . . Minli’s footsteps seemed to hush the night as she made her way toward the Jade River.  (This one works all right for me because her footsteps could not have hushed the night but could have created the sense of hushing the night.)
  • . . . The moon shone above so even in the darkness of the night, the fish seemed to burn a bright orange.  (This one puzzles me.  I know that the fish did not burn but was it bright orange?  If the sentence were “the fish seemed to burn with an orange flame” or “the fish seemed to burn, glowing bright orange”  it would have delivered a clearer imagery.)
  • . . . For the moment the fish seemed shocked and was still, like a flickering flame on a match.  (It would have worked if the fish was simply socked or in shock.  And we wouldn’t have had three consecutive “seemed’s” on one page.)

Now, that last sentence kind of “shocked” me when I first encountered it.  How could a fish that is shocked into “stillness” be also “flickering” like a flame on a match that does not stop moving?  (After considering this several times, I could have explained that perhaps the water has been moving moments before so that the water makes the brightly lit orange fish scales sparkle and flicker.  But this figure of  speech did not make the imagery clear.  It does not illustrate or illuminate.)

Here are two more examples of odd similes:

  • On page 42 … “only barely could he see the faint footprints on the ground — it was like searching for a wrinkle in a flower petal.”  I did a triple-take and quite a bit of head scratching when I read this sentence: Many flowers have petals that are full of wrinkles.  Did the author mean that it is extremely EASY to make out the faint footprints on the ground? If so, does not it contradict the “barely” sentiment proposed in the first portion of the sentence?
  • On page 61 … “Under his gaze, Ma and Pa suddenly felt like freshly peeled oranges, and their words fell away from them.”  To this day, after re-reading this sentence countless times, I still could not quite figure out how a “freshly peeled orange” might feel.  I guess that it addresses the notion of their “words falling away” from them.   Does that make them feel naked?  Does it have something to do with the speed of the peeling (which does not happen instantly but can be pretty fast, unlike peeling an apple)?  This figure of speech confounds this reader and conceals the full meaning from view.

Of course, plenty of readers disagree with my reaction and I am eager to hear from others who can shed some light on these and other passages from the book that, to me, seem to be on the “Composition 101/Figure of Speech Exercise 5” level and do not always flow organically to tell a vivid story.

I probably will post more musings on how metaphors and similes should only appear to illustrate, interpret, and illuminate the scenes and emotions and should be avoided at all cost when they contradict, confound, or conceal the underlying, true meanings of the passages.  (My 3-Is and 3-Cs rule!)

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About Fantasy — Is it OK to say "Okay"?

Reading Kristin Cashore’s article, “Hot Dog, Katsa!” in the Jan/Feb 2010 Horn Book (first issue entirely in color!) reminded me why I admire good fantasy writers so much!  It also made me search online and re-read two fantastic articles that also discuss fantasy world building and what makes Good fantasy stories outstanding (or what makes them less so.)  These two articles are Sam Swope’s review in the New York Times: Moonlighting (partially about fantasy books but the focus is on adult writers writing for children) and Jane Langton’s The Weak Place in the Cloth: A Study of Fantasy for Children from the October 1973 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

I am not embarrassed to report that tears rushed into my eyes as I was moved by some of these authors’ (all fantasy world building masters themselves) insights.  I won’t repeat everything they say here — please please read their articles.  In essence, all three agree that:

just because a writer can dream up a whole lot of fantastic situations, weird creatures, and unusual characters does not make this writer a good fantasy storyteller.  In fact, without the harnessing power of logic, realism, and careful planning — in short, the self-editing process — the work could turn out to be a huge and unconvincing mess.

In Cashore’s article, she also specifically points out the importance of selecting appropriate words in keeping with the setting of the fantasy world.  As the title indicates, you don’t say, “Hot dog, Katsa!” because it takes the reader out of the world of  vaguely medieval setting (in her book Graceling) and shatters the otherwise solidly constructed illusion of a magical realm that could have actually existed.

I think that is why I felt so jarred when encountering the word “okay” on page 4 in the 2010 Newbery Honor title Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin.  This book is set in a mythical, undetermined, but quite solidly yesteryear China.  There is no usage of electricity or references of modern day conveniences.  Instead, one meets dragons, talking gold fish, the Goddess of Heaven, and many other fanciful characters while the people work the earth and walk long ways on foot and push carts to sell their goods.  So, seeing a highly Americanized and fairly contemporary word like “okay” used in the dialog between the main character and her father made me cringe.

As a lover of fantasy, I have formed certain ideas.  I hold quite tightly a set of internalized rules.  In short, I ask a lot of the storytellers.  I want them to be versed in the fundamental requirements of good fantasy world building as presented in the articles cited above.  Or, at least, as mentioned in Cashore’s article, I want them to let their characters talk in the “right” language, with the “right” tone.  Of course, what is right or what is not right might vary from one reader to the next in certain cases.  But, there is a general sense of the time and place where people talk a certain way which is not so hard to pin down.   In the case of Minli and her father (Ba,) OKAY is simply Not OK.

Of course, this is not the only book where OK or Okay are used casually by authors when their characters should have no inkling of what this word might mean.   (According to the OED, the expression “OK” meaning “all correct, all right” did not appear until early 19th century USA.)

So, I am making a fairly personal and weak plea to  authors of fantasy novels — unless the world you have built is firmed anchored in a post-early-19th century world (like the one in Percy Jackson and the Olympians,) would it be possible to curb your urge to use OK and find another expression more in keeping with the setting of your world?

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Feminist or Anti-such?

I, along with my students and thousands of fans, have fallen in love with recent books by Tamora Pierce and Kristin Cashore. (Terrier, Bloodhound, Graceling, and Fire.) These fantasy books all feature incredibly attractive and strong teen females. They fight crimes, they battle monsters, they fall in love but seem to be totally in control of their relationships! They, not the male partners, are the ones who are empowered to choose and make their destinies.

So, when you have these young women, each (Beka, Katsa, and Fire) is taking one or multiple partners to bed, some details have to be attached. Beka got a charm, Katsa and Fire both used an herb — these supposedly will prevent pregnancy — the messy aftermath of their amorous acts.

On the one hand, I am happy that they are “getting it” and having a great time with it. On the other hand, my 21st century, teacher of teens and mother of a pre-teen daughter, mind keeps wondering: What are the BOYS/MEN doing to prevent the communication of the “other” kind of mess? The mess that hangs over millions of modern men, women, and children. Yes, these are Fantasy stories — but since the idea of birth-control are included, what’s to prevent our wonderful writers to also come up with some clever ways so that at least the young people in the stories (and the young people reading the stories) are careful about diseases. (In both Beka Cooper and Fire’s cases, they are sleeping with men who have multitudes of partners before and after themselves.)

Just wondering… Why in these quite feminist slanted stories, men and boys are still not held “accountable” for their actions?

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Examining The Five Chinese Brothers

On Child_lit (a listserv devoted to the discussion of children’s literature), we’ve been having a heated debate (again) over Bishop’s The Five Chinese Brothers. (Claire Hutchet Bishop/Kurt Wiese, 1938) I have been a supporter for this book for the longest time, sharing it with my daughter who is half-Chinese and half-Jewish. (I am 100% Chinese: half Han, half Manchurian, born and raised in Taiwan.) I’m only posting here to let my readers decide whether the common complaints about this book match the facts. The complaints have been mostly based on the illustrations, so that’s all we’re going to look at today.

1st complaint: everyone in the crowd looks exactly alike in a stereotypical way.
There are only two spreads in this 32-page picture book that contain a crowd scene. Most of the faces are just outlines of the cheeks. These few faces in the front show completely different features: ear and face shapes, noses, mouths, and neck thickness, and one even wears glasses. Their outfits are all alike and every man has a queue (the braided hair) which was the required/prescribed hairstyle for all men in the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912.) Cutting off the queue or wearing hair in a different style could cause someone’s life since that was against the law. So, if the illustrator decided to set the story during those 250+ years, it is entirely normal for a crowd of men to wear queues.

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Complaint 2: Chinese people are not yellow like that.
This book was published in 1938, at a time where 4-color separation and multicolor printing was not common and was not done in most children’s books. This book has 3 colors which means it has but ONE color. Black and white were a given and one more color was added to brighten the illustrations. Everything is YELLOW in the book — from the waves of the sea, to the sails of the boat, the treasures on the seabed, and the flames of the fire. As a Taiwanese Chinese, we were taught that we were the “yellow race” and proud of the hue of our skin. Yes, we are not truly “yellow” (like many blacks are not really “black”) but we were never ashamed of our skin color.

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Complaint 3: Not only the people in the crowd, the other characters all look the same, too. (It’s a given that the five brothers have to look exactly alike — which Weiss managed to do extremely well.)

This is one brother. Examine the pictures following this one: do these faces look “the same” and “the same as the brother” to anyone? Indeed, each face depicted differs from the rest. If the readers/viewers cannot make out the differences, it is not the artist’s fault.

Complaint 4: these people all have the stereotypical slanted eyes.
It is true that most of the faces illustrated feature slanted/small/single line eyes. Could it be that – a. many Chinese people’s eyes are smaller, without the hanging folds over the eyes, than the Western people? b. The slant of the eyes is prevalent in the Chinese? and c. This is a particular style of the artist?

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Photo-39-720506 Photo-41-756385 Photo-42-756407 Photo-44-785347 Photo-45-718906Complaint 5: Bishop didn’t cite a source of this “Chinese” tale.

In 1938, most retellings of fairy and folktales were not sourced.

 

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Kung Fu Panda and Wuxia

Let me just come straight out and state that I really loved Kung Fu Panda, one of the summer’s animated family movies set in a non-specific Chinese village, featuring all animal characters, ranging from Rhinos and leopards to pigs and praying mantis. Oh, and, a Giant Panda whose father, unfathomably, is a duck who is a chef and owns a noodle shop. I know that upon close examination, many people might find the story a bit superficial, and superficially mystical: about finding oneself and having faith in one’s abilities and the whole “mystical” notion of fulfilling one’s fate. It might be an outsiders’ view of what Chinese martial arts world is all about but the creators of the movie did their homework and pay a lot of homage to the wuxia tradition.

Wuxia can be loosely translated to “martial arts knights” but the notion of WU is larger than just the practice of martial arts; it’s a mind set and a way of life. So is the notion of XIA — it often is not simply a person who has demonstrated talents in the arts of WU but also someone with great integrity and compassion, one who will help the less fortunate, and fulfill one’s duty to the fullest. Wuxia Xiaoshuo (Wuxia Novels) has been a uniquely Chinese popular literary genre for the 20th and 21st centuries. A little more detailed explanation of general themes can be found on the wikipedia article on this topic.

One of the most fascinating elements, for me as a reader of wuxia xiaoshuo (I read wuxia most ardently during high school and college years) is the training processes of the protagonists. These tend to be unrealistically super-human — one might learn to “walk on the top of grass” or to “defeat a dozen enemies barehanded and blind-folded,” etc. That’s why in my mind wuxia is closely resembling the western Fantasy novels. The creators of KFP definitely captured this aspect when Shifu (literally: Teacher/Master) figures out how to train Po and the audience is treated to a fantastic sequence of training sessions.

The movie is accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack and gorgeous background artwork. The calligraphy is not only beautiful but accurate. However, in most wuxia stories, you will find people using many different kinds of weapons: from swords to spears, with “hidden weapons” such as small needles (sometimes dipped in poison) and poisonous powders. Weaponry and the inventiveness of such are also what the readers/audience tend to appreciate in a work of wuxia. Maybe the sequel will feature more than just body-combat and using random objects (bricks and firecrackers, for example) to fight.

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A Thin Line

According to some scholars, there had, for a long time, a gender bias in children’s books. Traditionally, boys were portrayed as “strong, adventurous, independent, and capable,” while girls tended to be “sweet, naive, conforming, and dependent.” Girls in books tended to be more passive and “acted upon” rather than the active seeker of solution and adventures. However, I could recall many female protagonists who possess all the positive and active characteristics: Charlotte (Charlotte’s Web,) Claudia (From the Mixed-up of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,) Meg (A Wrinkle in Time,) Cimorene (Dealing with Dragons,) Leslie (Bridge to Terabithia,), India Opal (Because of Winn-Dixie,) and Lyra (The Golden Compass.) This is just a start of a long list of names. I doubt not that young readers “need” these strong girls in their readings to form part of their world view without the traditional gender bias. Many newly published books for children continue this trend. (Lucky in The Higher Power of Lucky comes to mind.)

For a long time now, there has also been a group of girl protagonists that I might term “misunderstood.” The famous ones are Ramona (Ramona the Pest and other titles,) Gilly Hopkins (The Great Gilly Hopkins,) Harriet (Harriet the Spy). These girls are head-strong, actively seeking adventures, and (on the surface) do not care how others perceive them. (But as readers soon find out, they are all insecure and desire to be noticed, admired, and loved.) Out of this vine, there grew the current bunch of girls who are not only strong and adventuresome, but also couldn’t care less what others perceive them and how others might feel and react to their words and actions.

More and more female protagonists act rudely and selfishly and have been praised for their “pluckiness” and nonconformity. We see a mild case of witty snippishness in Mia (Princess Diaries,) and then there are the younger cast such as Junie B. Jones whose antics, unlike those of Ramona’s, are a lot more intentional and whose sarcastic descriptions of the others (children and adults alike) are beyond just a show of pluckiness or humor. Last year we saw a group of amazingly talented outcast girls in Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City. They sure are adventuresome and resourceful. No guys ever helped them with their mission. They are bonded over life-and-death situations, saving each other from great perils, and sharing secrets no one else could know. And yet, when they are with each other, sarcastic put-downs are uttered and thrown at each other relentlessly. These are not merely nonconforming, plucky girls: they are downright rude and nasty.

And, yet, it seems, the world celebrates them. “Kiki Strike celebrates the courage and daring of seemingly ordinary girls, and it will thrill those who long for adventure and excitement.” —School Library Journal and “This is a rallying cry for the ‘curious’ and an effective anthem of geek-girl power . . . All in all, an absurdly satisfying romp for disaffected smart girls.” —Kirkus Reviews

When did so many girl protagonists cross the line and went from being admirably courageous and confident to being mean-spirited and self-congratulatory in their total disregard of others? I always believe that literature does not exist to cultivate readers’ manners or to provide role models. A good storyteller should always aim at achieving a good story. It is true that these girls exist in real life (flinging insults at each other as a way to show intimacy and quick wit, much like their male counterparts) and that the world of stories should be wide-open and encompass all kinds. However, it is crucial that children’s book creators and their teams do not simply make up these characters to follow a trend since these are what children see and hear on a daily basis, both in their real life and on TV/in movies and seem to fit the market place.

I wish that more critics and readers are aware of this somewhat subtle but insidious shift in children’s literature heroines and continue to appreciate the “traditional” “strong, adventurous, independent, and capable” literary girls whom we admire and would love to be friends with after reading the last sentence of a tale.

More on this later.

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Bound

boundby Donna Jo Napoli

Reading this retelling of the “Chinese Cinderella” story was a painful experience for me. I could not even tell if it is well told, as stories go, because I was so distracted by all the inaccuracies in Napoli’s portrayal of Chinese cultures, customs, characters, and philosophies.

Here are some examples of my understanding that does not coincide with Napoli’s text. Granted, I need to do more research and see if maybe my understanding is not universally correct..

A second wife of a man is not the “Stepmother” of his children by the other wife. She is the “auntie-mom” or “second mother.” A stepmother is the wife of a second, separate marriage after the first wife is no longer around.

Napoli’s misunderstanding of Chinese words is glaringly annoying: A Carp (li 3rd tone) and the word Advantage (li the 4th tone) look and sound completely differently — yes, in English, you see them both sound as “Li” — but their tones are different, and thus a Chinese speaker will not confuse these two at all. There is no way that Xing Xing (the main character) can paint/carve one of these two words to set up a “pun” in the ceramics she made.  And would a Chinese native speaker say something like this, “‘Ming means ‘bright’ with a second tone. The word for ‘destiny’ sounds the same but with another tone.”????? If they are speaking Chinese (which they are supposed to be doing in the story,) there will be no need to point out the tonal differences because by SPEAKING them, the different tones are already apparent.

Also — homophones are the most common in Chinese language. All the following are of the same pronunciation (and it’s only 5 out of a possible 20 or so homophones): Ming = bright, Ming = name, Ming = bird call, Ming = remembrance, Ming = hell/world of the spirits. Yes, the Chinese do have word plays, and much of such plays relies on the confusion of homophones… but, the way Napoli wrote it, you can just tell that she does not really GET this language. This is the same throughout the book: reading it feels like reading a Chinese History 101 text, with pieces of a tale stuck uncomfortably on the margins.  A most painful experience…

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