Mao and Me
Written and Illustrated by Chen Jiang Hong
Enchanted Lion Books, 2008, 77 pp.
Mao and Me is a graphic memoir of Chen Jiang Hong who grew up in North China in an era of political turbulence and material scarcity. Chen lives with his parents, grandparents and two older sisters in a narrow dark apartment in Tianjin (a major city 90 miles away from Beijing). Life is difficult but the family manages it happily until one day, “a voice announced from the radio –‘Chairman Mao has proclaimed a great Cultural Revolution in our country!’” Three years of natural disasters in the early 1960s had ripped China of any form of material abundance. In fact, many people were living in extreme poverty. Told through an ordinary boy’s eyes, the story is set in the aftermath of the natural disasters and great famine and witnesses the ten years (1966-1976) of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Neighbors and colleagues were turned into class enemies overnight and the entire country became fanatical causing class wars and chaos.
Chen is three years old when the Cultural Revolution turns his world upside down. He sees his grandparents destroying old photos and any trace of a better life, he witnesses people being publicly beaten, among them Old Mr. Huang and his beloved neighbor Mrs. Liu; he sees his father sent off to a forest farm on the Russian border for re-education; he joins the Little Red Guard at school and works alongside peasants and soldiers; he quietly bears the sorrow of losing his grandfather, and plays tricks to make his grandmother smile in her depression at the loss of her husband and chickens.
Chen replicates the illustration style of Lian Huan Hua, literally translated as “linked pictures,” a predominant illustration style in China’s picture books up until the 1980s. The linked pictures successfully convey the sequence of the story even without the words. The artistic media of ink, brush and watercolor visually presents the details of real life scenes with historical and cultural authenticity. The intimacy of everyday family life alternates with the political uproar of national events on small frames and large pictures as the story unfolds. The black outlines with ink and brush of characters and the details of their facial expressions fill each page with intense emotions.
This powerful book can be paired with other picture books and novels, such as Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine (2007) to give readers multiple representations of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Since the story is about an ordinary boy who lives in an extraordinary historical period, the book can teach diversity and unity through global literature. Except for living in an unusual historical context, Chen shares much in common with other children all over the world –he enjoys childhood games of building blocks and catching fireflies; he endures sorrow for losing his pet and his beloved grandfather; he is thrilled at learning to ride a bike; and above all, he likes to draw. Chen’s book can be used with other books that reflect commonalities across childhoods, such as The Composition (Antonio Skarmeta, 2000), First One Foot, Now the Other (Tomie de Paola, 1981), When I Was Young in the Mountains (Cynthia Rylant, 1982), and Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing (Guo Yue & Clare Farrow, 2008).
Ke Huang, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
WOW Review, Volume III, Issue 3 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work at https://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/review/iii-3/
9 thoughts on “WOW Review: Volume III, Issue 3”
After reading the commentary about Mirror- I was very curious about how my Moroccan student would respond. I mentioned that it was all rural- and didn’t that bother her? She said to me very quickly- Did you read this part? The writer explains that she only just happened to travel in the rural parts. This book is really good”
I teach English as a Second Language in the South Western United States. I have several students from North Africa. Many are young and are quite homesick. I decided to see how they might respond to representations of their cultures in children’s books available in the United States. I did not have enough lead up time to do justice to an explanation of cultural authenticity, so I used questions such as, do you think this book is fair? do you think this book is good? Should I read this book to my son to teach him about your country?
I can’t say that one student from Morocco can completley decide the authenticity of a text, but her approval for my son’s library means a lot to me.
I remember when I read Yenika-Agbaw’s “Images of West Africa in Children’s Books: Replacing Old Stereo-types with New Ones?” in the book “Stories matter: the complexity of cultural authenticity in children’s literature”, she argued that “a fair comparison would have been to compare urban life and children from similar socioeconomic backgrounds in both regions”. however, at that time, my first, shallow reflection was that “there is no such thing as a ‘fair’ comparison”, since these two kinds of kids/lives do exist in this world, so would this kind of comparison. I was wrong. And I am glad I realized that. By reading the book Mirror and this review I now understand that authors of children’s literature should keep in mind that their works have the impact deeper than we imagine, therefore they must possess the social responsibility to provide authentic and non stereotype stories to their young readers, who have less knowledge and sensitivity to read critically. I was really impressed that there are so many similarities the Baker designed in the book, even the color of each family member’s clothes, that makes readers connect two countries almost effortlessly. However I also noticed that if Baker didn’t choose to portray them this way, this book could inevitably end up in just another “unfair” comparison. This is such a outstanding book with beautiful illustrations and noble themes. But just because it’s so success and wild recognized, we should also pay more attention on its influence, either positive or negative.
I think this review is really exceptional! The respect she shows for both cultures is great! I especially enjoyed her interruptions of the differences and yet the main purpose of the book Mirror was to focus on similarities as what connect all of us. I found some books that I thought would go well alongside Mirror, “Why I Love Australia” by Bronwyn Bancroft, Bundle of Secrets: Savita Returns Home by Mubina Hussanti Kimani and Ikenna Goes to Nigeria by Ifeomas Onyefulu. These are just other suggestions. I personally liked these three because they go into the cultures that Mirror compares in a child friendly way.
I found Mirror to be a beautiful book with extraordinary illustrations. It really made me think about the stereotypes that we all make and that our similarities are really what hold us together.
I found this review of Mirror expressed wonderfully; I enjoyed the intensive review and information provided here. I enjoyed this book greatly and felt that the images of the cultures told a beautiful story of culture and identity. The story that each side of the book represented was told in a way that children of all ages could understand. I brought this book into my classroom and my students’ had many questions, but the exposure to the literature was great. I am usually not a huge fan of wordless picture books but this one is one that grabbed my attention and I would like to do into depth more so with it and my future lessons in my classroom. There is a lot to expose our children to in this text and doing so will invite them into many different culture related discussions.
I loved the design of this book! It was a “clever” way to capture my attention. I studied it forward and backwards the first day I had it because I was so intrigued with the design. This is a powerful book with a deep message, I thought, that shows we are all just people living life. In certain aspects we connect in the way that we live and in other aspects we don’t, but that is what makes it all so very interesting. The details of the illustrations are quite detail oriented. It certainly is a book that can be studied repeatedly and you will discover something interesting within the illustrations.
The review is done nicely. I enjoyed reading her thoroughness of the book and that she reflected on the positives and slightly negatives. Authenticity is an important aspect that we have discussed throughout this semester. The reviewer discusses that the cultural authenticity was done correctly and portrays each culture accurately except for the magic carpet. I agreed with her. Usually there are words or situations that cause you to think that something does not seem right. I didn’t have that with Mirror. This is a great picture book to own!
I enjoyed reading this review. I think the book Mirror was very unique and beautiful. The pictures were so crisp and naturally stunning. Baker obviously took great care and consideration in the images she chose to represent and compare. As the reader it was very apparent to me that her goal was to show similarities while highlighting differences. I think that this book could be appreciated for is central message and beautifully crafted images, we shouldn’t get too carried away with judging the book on its relevance and representation within a social-political responsibilities of the author.
I do think that Short raised a good point, describing how the boy drew pictures of the magic carpets, and how that connection to Arabic is overdone and could be construed as negative. I did not view that as a negative quality.
Overall this is a beautiful thought-provoking book that I will soon be adding to my library.
I definitely enjoyed the book. Honestly, I believe it is more complex than many picture books I grew up with as a child and critiqued when I was old enough to babysit. The differences were actually what stood out most to me–the greater the differences, the more similar the families. For example, at the end of the story, when the Australian family settles in to enjoy some time away from the constant overflow of technology by the fireplace, while on the other hand, the rural, Moroccan family chooses this time to enjoy technology together as a family…it’s still family time, with the members enjoying each others’ company; it’s just done differently for the families. It reminds me of trying to read a book in a mirror: while a human face reflects exactly in a mirror, a book will always read backward in a mirror. This story’s ending example is no different: while there are places in the book where there are similarities between the cultures, it is still a fascinating joy to explore the differences, just as much as holding the book to the mirror.
Because of such symbolic complexity expressed in this book, I see the lack of political societal structure representation as negligible, particularly when considering its main target audience. It is, after all, a PICTURE book, written for children whose parents and primary adult environments very likely teach stereotypes about people of foreign origin. Children in this case often see the attacked culture from very simple perspectives simply because ignorant perspectives are exactly that: simple. The author, therefore, appears to be using the very stereotypes (for example, the notorious “magic carpet”) to bring respect, rather than ridicule, to the different cultures. After all, when we look into a mirror, we might not always like what we see–yet often what we dislike about ourselves just might be what others see in us as beautiful. The book, the author, doesn’t focus on political structures because that isn’t the heart of the book. The heart of the book is to bring us back to the very simple truth: that no matter what our differences, at the end of the day, we are beautiful when we work together, especially when we work together to bring out the good in others, no matter how far away that may be.