2009, Little, Brown & Company. 278 pages, 48 chapters.
Ages: Grades 3 through 6, but can be shared with younger students as a read-aloud, and enjoyed by all ages.
A Newbery Honor Book
Features: Sketches and gorgeous full-color illustrations by the author, “Behind the Story” notes revealing how the author got many of her ideas, and Reader’s Guide questions.
In the rice fields near Fruitless Mountain, Minli and her parents struggle to scratch out a meager living, barely growing enough food to keep themselves alive. Minli’s father, Ba, does his best to keep everyone’s spirits up by telling folktales each evening–which Minli loves. Ma, meanwhile, counts every grain of rice–and looks on the stories as foolishness. When Minli spends one of her only two coins on a goldfish, Ma is distraught–knowing the family cannot even spare enough rice to feed the poor creature. Broken hearted, Minli knows what she must do–and sadly releases the little fish into the river. Her selfless gesture sets into motion a whole series of adventures–for as it turns out, this was no ordinary fish. A newly enlightened Minli sets out to find the Old Man of the Moon, who holds everyone’s destiny in his book of fortunes. If she can get to him, perhaps she can persuade him to change her family’s fate. On her journey, she meets a number of colorful characters, including a flightless dragon, a band of greedy monkeys, and an orphan who has found his own way to cope with life’s difficulties. Though Minli’s quest is the heart and soul of the book, this main story is gracefully intertwined with many shorter folktales, original to Lin but clearly influenced by Chinese lore, each with its own lesson to impart. The character of Minli is strong, determined, and resilient, and her obvious love for her family drives the book. Lin’s writing is elegant and fluent, highly readable, filled with rich imagery and striking word choice. Lin’s compelling story seamlessly blends the realism of a family’s struggle with plot twists and characters from the world of fantasy. Many readers draw strong parallels with the well-loved The Wizard of Oz.
In the Classroom
1. Reading aloud. Many older students will want to read this book on their own–but it makes a wonderful read-aloud for listeners of all ages. If you share the book aloud, be sure to use a document projector to share the many illustrative touches Lin has added to a text that is as beautiful physically as it is in concept.
2. Names. Minli’s name means “quick thinking.” Does it suit her? If your students could choose just one word to describe Minli, what would the word be? In many cultures, names are chosen especially for their meaning–and connection to the bearer of the name. Do your students know how names are chosen within their cultures–or how their own names were chosen? Consider doing some research on this and writing short informational pieces about names. Note: Predictably, some of your students may love their names, while others would like to change them if they could. This might be part of your writing–and share thoughts about your own name as well.
3. The Wizard of Oz. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon has often been called the Chinese Wizard of Oz. If your students are familiar with the Oz story, ask what similarities they see. In what ways are the stories different? (This can be a good topic for a comparative piece.)
4. What’s a folktale? Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is generally categorized as a folktale, a special kind of narrative. Based on what they know of this or other similar books, how would your students define this genre? What are the characteristics of a folktale–and why do so many people find this genre so appealing? Is it a favorite for your students? Why or why not?
5. How folktales evolve. Are students familiar with folktales that have been handed down through generations in their own cultures? Discuss or write about these and share ideas. For further discussion, consider that some folktales survive for hundreds of years–or even longer. How do your students imagine they might change during this time? How would this change happen?
6. Characters. Discuss the differences between Ma and Ba at the beginning of the book. How would your students describe each of them? Do they know anyone who reminds them of either person? Are Ma and Ba still very different at the end of the book–or have they become more alike? What evidence do we have?
7. Minli’s first big choice. When Minli decides to part with one of her precious coins to buy a goldfish, is she making the right decision? Would your students have made this same decision in Minli’s place? Why or why not? Write a short persuasive paragraph about this.
8. Minli’s second big choice. Minli sets out on a quest to change her family’s destiny. But of course, they do not know where she is or even if she is still alive. Given the pain she causes initially, is she right to set out on this quest, leaving her family behind?
9. Characters. Who is the strongest character in the book? Why do you think so? If your students could meet one of the characters, which one would they choose–and what would they say?
10. Destiny. Minli hopes to change her family’s destiny by meeting the Old Man of the Moon–and convincing him to change her family’s fortune. What do your students think? Do we have a destiny that is pre-determined, or do we shape our own lives by the choices we make?
11. Stories within the story. Woven throughout the main story of Minli and her family are numerous shorter folktales told by other characters. Do your students like these short “literary interruptions”? Why does the author take this approach in her writing? Is it effective? Have your students known anyone who answers a question by telling a story? Why do people do this?
12. A change of heart. Read Chapter 20 carefully. Describe what happens to Ma in this chapter. Is this a turning point in the book?
13. The key to happiness. Chapter 25 talks about a special word written on the Paper of Happiness. What do your students think that word might be? Write short persuasive paragraphs about this and share them. Could there be more than one answer to this very big question? Could the answer change over time?
14. Minli’s third big choice. When Minli finally meets the Old Man of the Moon, she is only allowed to ask one question. What sort of choice does she make at this important moment–when she has come so far and so much is resting on her choice? Does her response surprise you? If your students could ask one question of the Old Man of the Moon, what would it be? Suppose they had a chance to peek into their own future. Would they want to do that–or let it unfold on its own?
15. End of the quest. Does Minli find what she is seeking? And what is that?
16. Lin’s writing. Spend some time just appreciating the writing itself. It is so lovely. Have students find a favorite passage–based on any criterion. They might choose something lyrical, beautifully worded, or a passage with vivid imagery. Share your favorites and discuss the features that make Grace Lin’s writing so strong. This book was a Newbery Honor Book, after all. Was that a good choice? Why? Is this a book your students think their own children or grandchildren might read one day? Why?
Coming up on Gurus . . .
We will review the stunning Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by award-winning author and acclaimed artist Kadir Nelson. Don’t miss it. Also, we will announce the winner of our first door prize! It might be you, so come back and check! Our very deepest thanks to all our friends and fans. We appreciate you so very much. Please remember . . . for the very best trait-based professional development anywhere, contact us: 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.