July 02, 2009


China: Land of Dragons and Emperors. By Adeline Yen Mah. Delacorte Press. $17.99.

The Other Half of Life. By Kim Ablon Whitney. Knopf. $16.99.

Kaleidoscope Eyes. By Jen Bryant. Knopf. $15.99.

     Three sensitive women writers, three nations, three eras – it all adds up to three books that mix fictional and nonfictional elements and that young readers will enjoy even as they learn from them. China: Land of Dragons and Emperors, for ages 12 and up, is the most straightforward work, but so fascinating is China’s culture, and still so little known in the West, that Adeline Yen Mah’s book is filled with revelations as fascinating as many to be found in fiction. The 10 chapters here – supplemented by a timeline and a useful list of references for further information – trace China’s long history from a disunited group of petty states through a lengthy imperial period, through conquest and being conquered, into the modern era and the establishment of Communist rule over the mainland and Nationalist control of Taiwan. An apolitical book, China: Land of Dragons and Emperors takes no sides in modern (or many older) quarrels, presenting balanced portraits of historical figures and focusing much of the time on the rich tapestry of innovation that is Chinese history. Silk and gunpowder, paper and pigtails, the Great Wall and the reasons for the importance of the numbers eight and nine – all are here, and much more besides. Mah’s names for some Chinese dynasties are a clue to her style: the Ming was the “eunuchs’ dynasty” and the Qing the “crippled dynasty,” for example. In her focus on China’s many cultural achievements, Mah does tend to downplay the nation’s many-centuries-long periods of violence with such simple sentences as “Famine, banditry and strife continued.” And some of her more interesting statements could use a bit of additional explanation: “The Song paid tribute to the Liao and the Jin because it cost them less to pay them than to create an efficient army to fight them.” These are minor matters, though. The book is filled with fascinating snippets of history, lovely drawings and beautiful photographs, and its entire design – including the typesetting – is at once accessible and exotic. It is a fine introduction to a fascinating land and history.

     The Other Half of Life, also for ages 12 and up, has a more modern focus: it is set in 1939 and based on the story of the St. Louis, a luxury liner that carried Jews away from Hitler’s Germany but that ended up being turned back by Cuba, Canada and the United States. Eventually, passengers were allowed to disembark in France, Holland, Belgium and Great Britain, but 254 of the 937 aboard nevertheless died in the Holocaust. With this story as her basis, Kim Ablon Whitney creates a piece of youth-oriented historical fiction focusing on 15-year-old Thomas, son of a Jewish father and Christian mother, who is traveling alone on a ship that is here called the St. Francis; and 14-year-old Priska, who is with her family. Also aboard are Nazi crew members and an upstanding captain (this part is fact) who insisted on treating the Jewish passengers just like everyone else. In the story as Whitney tells it, Priska determinedly remains optimistic, as when the Cubans claim that the passengers’ documentation is not good enough: “It’ll get sorted out with time. If the landing permits were no good, they wouldn’t have given them to us.” Thomas is more of a realist, and wonders about his friend’s attitude: “Before they had arrived in the Havana harbor, her outlook had seemed stubbornly optimistic. Now it seemed only foolhardy.” Together, the two observe the doings of a Nazi spy; Thomas plays chess; the ship’s children write a letter to President Roosevelt; and the two young friends are eventually forced apart, to very different destinies. The Other Half of Life is heartfelt, highlighting an event of some historical significance: the true tale of the St. Louis led to significant improvements in U.S. treatment of refugees. But the book is also highly melodramatic, squeezing the heartstrings in every way possible – and, in the end, rather too tightly.

     Kaleidoscope Eyes deals with much more recent times, but ones that will likely seem just as remote to its intended readers, ages 9-13: the 1960s. Told as a series of poems in free verse – Jen Bryant is a poet as well as a writer of prose – the book is set in 1968 but looks back to the 17th century. The factual basis of this work is the excavation of a sunken steamship in the mid-1800s by a father and son, added to the many legends of the notorious pirate, Captain Kidd. Bryant weaves these threads together in the tale of 13-year-old Lyza, who discovers three old maps in her late grandfather’s attic. Accompanying the maps is a letter specifically addressed to her – and it sends Lyza, with her friends Malcolm and Carolann, on a secret treasure hunt throughout their small town of Willowbank, New Jersey. The town is, unfortunately, becoming even smaller, as its young men go off to the Vietnam War; patriotism is offset by worries about the safety of the towns’ sons. The whole book is intended to give a kaleidoscopic view of its times, and Lyza’s possession of a kaleidoscope is a little too obviously symbolic. It comes up again and again, for instance at the Fourth of July celebration: “Carolann’s family arrives. They set their chairs/ and blankets next to us, and as we’re/ twirling sparklers and watching/ the first rockets/ and pinwheels go off, I wonder: What must they look like/ through Harry’s color-blind eyes? And what would/ he see inside my kaleidoscope?” There is no particular reason for this book to be told as a series of poems, and in fact some important elements – a letter about the maps’ authenticity, excerpts from the (fictional) log of Captain Kidd, and more – are entirely in prose. The lilting rhythms of some of the poems help move the story along, but the poetic structure often seems arbitrary. Still, the story has a number of exciting elements, and the idea of laying a portrait of the Vietnam War era over a mystery from 300 years earlier is an intriguing one. The characters in Kaleidoscope Eyes never really come alive as individuals, but the story – each of its parts introduced by lines from a song of the 1960s, the last of them of course using a “kaleidoscope eyes” quotation from the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – is unusual enough to keep middle-graders’ interest throughout.

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