Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is the most enjoyable children’s book I have read in a long time. It is surely destined to become a 21st century Classic.
The story, as explained in the blurb, is simple enough:
“Young Minli lives in the Valley of Fruitless Mountain, where she and her parents spend most of their days working hard in the fields. At night, Minli listens to her father’s tales about the Old Man of the Moon, who knows the answers to everything. Minli sets out on a quest to find the Old Man of the Moon – he will know how she can bring good fortune to her family. Along the way, she meets many magical friends, including a talking fish, a powerful king, and a dragon who can’t fly.”
However, the blurb only tells a tiny part of the story.
As Grace Lin, the American-Chinese author, explains, she was the only Asian in her elementary school and so gradually came to reject her Asian heritage, despite her mother’s best efforts. However, as she grew older and visited Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China, the fairy stories her mother had left lying around for her as a child came flooding back. More than that, they came alive. When she came to write Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, she drew on those myths, developing some and inventing some new ones altogether. “In fact,” she wrote, “many times I found myself unsure which elements were my own fabrications and which were the traditional stories!” What we have in this great book then are traditional Chinese stories with Grace Lin’s own distinctive spin.
That spin is highly significant, partly because it has made the book accessible for a western readership, and partly because it influenced the whole look and feel of the book. The Chinese folktales and fairytales that Grace Lin met as a child were a disappointment: “The translation from Chinese to English had left the stories thin and at times rough and hard to understand. There were hardly any details or descriptions, and the black-and-white illustrations were simple line-drawings, a far cry from the lush paintings in my books of European fairy tales.”
What she set out to create in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, therefore, was a thing of beauty. And she succeeded. The book is beautifully illustrated by Grace Lin herself and every aspect of the presentation has been carefully chosen, from the size of the book (which is slightly smaller than the norm and so sits beautifully in the hand) to the fonts which are a real pleasure to read.
But what about the story itself? Or stories themselves, for the book is full of them. Stories open up out of other stories and yet they all interlink in some intriguing and clever ways. They draw you in and on. They take you to the unexpected, but inevitable, end. Unexpected because Grace Lin is a great storyteller and inevitable because you (or, at least, I) think to yourself: Of course, how else could it have been?
The other point to make here is about the tone of the book, which is child-friendly in absolutely the best sense of the word. Reading the book put me in mind of G K Chesterton’s words in ‘The Ethics of Elfland’ (which can be found in Orthodoxy): “Here I am only trying to describe the enormous emotions which cannot be described. And the strongest emotion was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity. The goodness of the fairy tale was not affected by the fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale. The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?”
So there you are: it’s a great book and there are even a couple of sequels. I’m really looking forward to laying my hands on them.