Pros: Beautifully written, exposure to Chinese folklore, solid theme. fanciful and fun.
The search for happiness - or what we think will make us happy - is a longstanding theme of many books. In Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, this theme is developed in the tale of Minli, a young girl who leaves her poverty-stricken parents to search for the secret of a better life that will make her mother happy. Much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, both Minli and her mother learn the lesson that true happiness lies within the family and those we love.
This beautifully written juvenile novel was named a 2010 Newberry Honor medalist - runner-up for the prestigious award for middle-grade novels. The book deserves the honor.
Minli's father loves relating the old folktales and fairy tales to Minli. Her favorites involve those about the Old Man of the Moon, who guides the destiny of human beings. When she becomes aware of her mother's desperation about the family's extreme poverty, Minli decides to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask for a better life.
After Minli secretly departs on her journey, her parents frantically search for her, to no avail. Minli's distraught mother realizes that the loss of her child is far more important than their poor existence, and her entire perspective on happiness is changed.
Minli also learns the lesson. When she finally meets the Old Man of the Moon, she is allowed only one favor. She must make a choice to ask for a better life for her family or seek help for a friend. Her decision shows that she understands there are more important things in life than material possessions.
One of the delightful aspects of the story is the manner in which author Lin expertly weaves Chinese folk and fairy tales into the plot. Each leg of Minli's journey brings her face to face with a new dilemma or interesting character. In each of the scenarios, a new folk or fairy tale is related by the people she meets.
At first, the tales all seem like disconnected stories. By the end of the novel, though, all are connected into a unified whole. The reader realizes that each individual fairy tale is an integrated part of the plot - no small feat!
Minli's father is a gentle, kind, imaginative individual. Her mother, on the other hand, is obviously discontent. She initially blames her husband and his wild, fanciful tales for Minli's disappearance, but she eventually realizes that her own constant complaining about her unhappiness was the real cause of Minli's journey.
Minli, as the central character, is multi-faceted. She holds true to her name, which means "quick thinking." Though a bit shy, she eventually learns to stand up to danger and make decisions that are well thought-out. Her inquisitive nature and determination to achieve her task show her true inner strength. She's an entirely likable character.
Along the way, Minli befriends a dragon who cannot fly. She invites him to visit the Old Man of the Moon so that he may be granted the gift of flight (a bit reminiscent of Dorothy's lion, tin man, and scarecrow.) Shy dragon eventually transforms into a happy, confident fellow. The friendship between Dragon and Minli is endearing. He saves her life, endangering his own in the effort.
Magical goldfish, disguised kings, twins who outsmart a fierce poisonous tiger to protect their family, a poor boy who is content to own only a friendly buffalo - these are some of the characters Minli meets. With each encounter, she learns something more about the family ties and love.
Minli touches many people along the way, and they help her. In one of my favorite sequences, people in a small village, noting that Minli is poorly clothed, present her with a coat made from patches of many different material patterns and colors. As she leaves the village, Minli notices a patch of material missing from each villager's sleeve, and she is deeply moved.
This is a fanciful book, narrated in 3rd person omniscient, allowing the reader to see into the minds of many characters, but primarily those of Minli, her parents, and Dragon. Grace Lin switches back and forth between scenes of Minli's adventures and her parents awaiting her return. Hooks t the ends of chapters will keep the reader turning the pages. The simplicity of the storytelling adds charm to the story.
The author has created several illustrations. These are fanciful and colorful - rich reds, blues, and greens. Though there are only a few, they are pleasant little surprises scattered throughout the book.
Certain symbols, such as dragons, rabbits, goldfish, and tigers, are repeatedly used. In addition, the author uses peaches in many scenes. I did some research and found that peaches originated in China and were considered symbols of affection and fertility. By the end of the story, a once barren mountain transforms into a fertile and lush area. By the end of the story, the characters understand that love is more valuable than material things. So much for peaches...
In the End...
I highly recommend this book. It's beautifully written, tells a good story, exposes the reader to intercultural folklore, and teaches worthwhile lessons. The reading level is perfect for 8 to 12 year-olds, but this would be a wonderful book to read aloud to younger children. It's full of fantasy and adventure and should spark many imaginations.