Monday, August 31, 2015

Spotlight: Exploring Chinese History through Picture Books

I stumbled upon these books at the library and knew I had to bring the three of them home.  Asian Heritage Month was just this passed May and here's a little something that I wanted to share.


Ming's Adventure in the Forbidden City
written & illustrated by Li Jian
translated by Yijin Wert

On a trip to the Forbidden City, Ming gets separated from his father and is somehow transported to the Qing Dynasty.

While there, he meets the Little Emperor and they become friends. Ming shares stories about things from his time and the Little Emperor takes him on a tour of the Forbidden City.

But how will Ming get back to his time and his family?

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Ming's Adventure in the Forbidden City is a very cute picture book.  It's very whimsical and fun so expect the tone to be light.

What's pretty cool about this book is that while it is in English, it also carries another text written in Chinese characters (i.e. hanzi).  It's so important to have books like this, which simultaneously makes a culture more accessible to children and it introduces a new language (that may be their parent's first language).

If there had been books like this in my youth but with Portuguese text?  I would have had an easier time reading and constructing sentences in that language.


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Ming's Adventure with the Terracotta Army
written & illustrated by Li Jian
translated by Yijin Wert

A new exhibit has opened up in town featuring the Terracotta Army.  Ming and his Mom go to the museum to see them.  At the end of their day, Ming's Mom buys him a small figure to remember the day.

At the stroke of midnight that night, the figure of the terracotta general comes to life.

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Another light and sweet adventure in this one.  In this one, we do not get the corresponding Chinese text.  I thought that was a bit of a loss since it made it unique.

What we do get is historical information explaining what was found in the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shihuang and much more.  Fun information to share with the little ones.  The text is a little awkward to read though.  It does not have a strong enough flow.


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Mulan: A Story in Chinese and English
written & illustrated by Li Jian
translated by Yijin Wert

One day, soldiers arrive in the village and ask for a man from each family to enlist in the army.  China needs defending.

To protect her father, who is too old to fight, Fa Mulan dresses up as a boy and leaves to join the army in his place.  For 12 years, she dedicates her life to fighting the threat and protecting China.

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It is a short picture book so the story seems very rushed for me.  I would have liked to have it drawn out a bit more and filled in in some places.

Its length would make more sense if I knew it was just a direct translation of the original folktale but that was not made clear in the book.  This one also has the Chinese text with its corresponding English translation.

Overall, still a stunning picture book that is a great read. The story of Fa Mulan will always be an exciting one and I'm glad to see it retold here.


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Li Jian has plenty of other books in English too.  This post was only a glimpse into the author's work and I hope you will check the other out.  Here is a fine little list over at Goodreads.

I have also included a video from the Royal Ontario Museum of their Forbidden City exhibit.  I actually got to see it with my own eyes and it was wonderful.



Thursday, August 13, 2015

WWI & Women's Words

Vera Brittain got me thinking the other day about women's stories and experiences with the first world war.  Here's a small list of books if anyone (like myself) has gotten super into reading war memoirs lately.

I also want to take a second to warn that these books will have descriptions that can be shocking and really emotional.

A Hilltop on the Marne: An American's Letters from War-Torn France
by Mildred Aldrich

This book collects the letters Mildred Aldrich written in the spring of 1914 to  friends overseas.  Despite pleas from her friends to return to America as the situation worsens in Europe, Aldrich decides to not leave her home in Huiry, France.  From her farm, she watches as soldiers march across the fields.

Her letters even detail events from after the war as she sees the small world around her rebuild itself.

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A Volunteer Nurse on the Western Front
by Olive Dent

This book collects the diary entries of V.A.D. nurse, Olive Dent.  She served for two years during WWI and her writing captures clear and powerful moments of every day life in a tented hospital in France.

Her first-hand account of her experiences with suffering soldiers and with watching the people around her support one another will capture readers.

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The Forbidden Zone: A Nurse's Impression of the First World War
by Mary Borden

An intimate look at war from another nurse, Mary Borden, who was stationed at an evacuation hospital just behind the front lines.  In fact, she was an American who took it upon herself to fund and lead the hospital.

This book is divided into three parts and even includes poetry by Borden.  Her writing is actually very poetic so even Part One draws upon a lot of imagery.  I also find what she focused on to be interesting like specific soldiers and hospitals.

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The Backwash of War
by Ellen N. La Motte

In The Backwash of War, Ellen N. La Motte shares the horrific and shocking aspects of the WWI.  In her four years of serving in a hospital 10 kilometres behind the Western Front, she saw the "human wreckage" of war as she attended to diseased and broken French soldiers.

Her first-hand accounts were so controversial for revealing the true costs of war that the American Government banned the book in 1918.  

La Motte's book inspired the BBC series The Crimson Field, which just finished airing on PBS. 


Honorable Mentions:

Chronicle of Youth
edited by Alan Bishop 
& Terry Smart

This book is not the same as Testament of Youth.  I repeat, it is not the same.  I had a bookseller try and pass it off to me as an American edition of Vera's memoir but it's not.  It's actually a collection of her diary entries from 1913 to 1917.  It's not all of her diary entries but a good portion of them.

Testament of Youth is based on those diary entries and follows a narrative that she wrote sometime after the war. So yes, there is a difference.

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Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends
edited by Alan Bishop
& Mark Bostridge

This one is an honourable mention because of the mixture of voices in it.  This book has letters of correspondence between Vera, her brother Edward, her fiancĂ© Roland Leighton and two friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow.

The book covers the years 1913 to 1915 and follows each of them from their hopeful beginnings to their disappointed endings.   It's especially important as four of the voices were extinguished during the war and this is all that remains.  The young voices of a generation lost too soon.

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Women Heroes of World War I:
16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics
by Kathryn J. Atwood

This book collects the stories of 16 fascinating and brave women that contributed to the war effort in their own unique ways.  They come from different backgrounds and nationalities, but the single thing that unites them is their willingness to fight for their country.

It provides historical context about the war, reading lists, suggested resources, quotes and excerpts from diaries.  A lot of information that really rounds out their stories.  For example, one of the women featured in the book is Maria Bochkareva, who led an all female combat unit.  For women who did not have the right to vote yet, that is incredible.

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The Great War: The People's Story DVD

Below is a video of a 4 part series where actors play out letters written by soldiers and loved ones during WWI.  The stories are given context by a narrator who drops in often to describe historical facts about the war.  I have read reviews stating that its a very haunting and unsettling series as the actors look directly into the camera (i.e. in the viewer's direction).