Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan

Sunflower knew in her heart that this boy would rescue her.  She hadn't called out to him.  She hadn't made any gestures asking for help.  She had just stood on the boat, watching him.  
The look in her eyes was enough.

Life in rural China in the early 1970s was hard.  The cultural revolution bought so much change.  Peasant farmers endure a daily struggle against weather and plague.  Reading Bronze and Sunflower felt, at times, like riding roller coaster.  The are moments of happiness and joy and then things seem to change in an instant for example just as their crops are almost ready to harvest disaster strikes :

"Soon the shouts and screams woke the whole village. People leapt out of bed, ran outside and looked up at the sky. But there was no sky, just a seething mass of screeching locusts blocking out the early morning light.  ... Down they poured, like rain from a rain cloud."

Intellectuals are sent to be re-educated in the country.  Sunflower and her father are sent to Cadre School which is set up across the river from Damaidi. Her father loves her but he is forced to work long hours and attend meetings each evening so often they only see each other for a few precious minutes late at night.  Sadly her father dies.  Sunflower is taken across the river and sits in a rock in the village waiting for a new family to take her.  Bronze and his family are so poor but they are drawn to this little girl.  These scenes are so tense.  Another cruel father and his equally cruel son are also considering claiming this girl.

Bronze is the only son of one of the poorest families in Damaidi.  An accident as a young child has left him mute and so he has become isolated from the other village children. He spends his days assisting with growing and finding food for his family - mother, father and grandmother - Nainai - the Chinese word for Grandmother.  In one chapter you will read how the whole family work to make shoes from reeds and how this brave boy goes to the larger town to sell one hundred pairs.

Sunflower does go to live with Bronze and his family.  They sacrifice everything to send her to school and the two children become inseparable finding a special way to communicate then one day a message arrives that city officials are coming to take Sunflower away.

When you pick up Bronze and Sunflower be prepared to slow yourself right down.  The pace of this story feels like the plodding of the buffalo you see on the cover.  It may take you a chapter or two to 'get into the rhythm' of this writing but be patient - you will be richly rewarded with a beautifully crafted story.  Click on some of the review quotes below to read more.

Next month I am lucky to be attending the 12th Regional USBBY Conference.  The conference is entitled Radical Change Beyond Borders - The transforming power of Children's Literature in a Digital Age.  Bronze and Sunflower is one of the books on their reading list.

Thank goodness Walker Books saw value in having this Chinese book translated so that, yes, while it can be enjoyed by millions of Chinese children, now it can also travel across the world to be enjoyed by children in Australia, USA, UK along with France, Italy and Germany (see covers below).

Listen to an audio sample hereCao Wenxuan was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen medal at the IBBY congress in Auckland in 2016.  I was in the audience at this ceremony and Cao Wenxuan made an inspirational speech.  There are some interesting teaching ideas here.

The landscape Cao describes is beautiful — reed marshes stretching as far as the eye can see, a meandering river, a pretty village on the opposite bank — but Sunflower is alone and lonely, “like a solitary bird in a vast blue sky with nothing for company but the sound of its own beating wings.”  New York Times

It’s bold and unfamiliar. Touching and terrifying. Historical but somehow also timeless. It’s one of the best dang novels I’ve read for kids in a long time. Do you truly want your kids to be citizens of the world? Then hand that world to them. Give them this book.  Elizabeth Bird School Library Journal

Although not without times of grief and real hardship, Bronze and Sunflower’s lives are full of so much loveliness, happiness and kindness that this book, this story came as a welcome breath of fresh air, full of hope and a reminder that warmth and generosity can make for powerful storytelling just as much as angst and dystopia.   Zoe Playing by the Book

Readers of all ages should be prepared to laugh, cry, and sigh with satisfaction Kirkus

“That’s what I’m interested in, the continuity,” he added. “It doesn’t matter what the setting is; universal values and humanity always show through.”  Cao Wenxuan

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