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Book Review: Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing

13 January 2009

Little Leap Forward Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing
written by  Guo Yue and Clare Farrow
Illustrated by: Helen Cann
published by: Barefoot Books, 2008
Audience (reading level): 9 to 12 (Flesch-Kincaid 5.5)

Guo Yue (translated Leap Forward) shares roughly a year of his boyhood in this memoir of growing up in Beijing, China.  In this first-person account, Yue describes his life in a musician’s courtyard (five families living together)  in the mid-1960s.

Although Yue introduces us to his family and a few schoolmatea, the story is drawn from the connections between Leap Forward, Little-Little (his best friend), and a little yellow bird named Little Cloud.

Leap Forward wants to be a musician like his father. In the first chapter, Leap Forward tells us that his father’s death precedes the story. Still, he wants us to know about his father’s love of music, by sharing wisdom his father shared with him:

Just remember … with music and your imagination, you can travel anywhere; you will always be free.

The quip takes on added significance, given that later in the story his mother burns all of the treasures of her childhood in anticipation of the Red Guards’s arrival. It is also why Little Cloud is significant. Little-Little captures the small yellow bird because Leap Forward wants to understand its song and copy it.  Leap Forward builds a cage and cares for the bird, but it will not sing. He practices his flute in front of the cage. Still, Little Cloud won’t sing. Ultimately, Leap Forward understands that music comes from the heart.

Are you missing the sky too much Little Cloud? Is that why you can’t sing? Is that what you wanted to tell me?

The story ends just as Little Cloud is released. The Cultural Revolution has just begun, and the memories stop with the boys running to the river for a competition of skipping stones.

When taken out of the context of 1960s China, the reader sees an almost universal child. Leap Forward’s happiest moments come from the time he shared with his best friend,  Little-Little. Together, the boys would compete to see who could fly his kite the highest or skim stones the farthest. At school, we learn that Yue has a difficult time learning to write and has a crush on a young girl about his age. At home, his older sisters are forever reminding him about the chores he needs to do.  These are the memories of childhood.

Although Yue explains how his life changed, it is the perspective of a then 8-year-old boy. There are few substantive references to events beyond his immediate day-to-day life.  You wouldn’t expect that from a youth narrator.

In the end, though, I think it diminishes the story.  Yue doesn’t offer any sense of the impact of the revolution on his family. The story closes just as the Red Guards arrive, so you do not know that he grew up without his mother. A few months after the Cultural Revolution began, she was sent to the countryside to be “re-educated.”

This is a superbly crafted book. The pages are art-quality (typical of Barefoot Books) and the illustrations are beautifully presented and evoke a sense of time and place. There are at least two illustrations for each chapter. I particularly like how the diminuitive size of the book (5½ x 8 x ½ inches) adds dimension (no pun intended) to the story. It evokes the idea of holding a small yellow bird in your hand … it fits neatly, but not quite perfectly. It also reminds you that this is a child’s story.

My thoughts on the book are mixed. I enjoyed the innocence of the story and the illustrations are beautiful. I would enjoy looking at them as their own mini-coffee table book. Yue has written a story with universal appeal. That said, the pitch in the jacket flap repeatedly pushes the impact of the Cultural Revolution. How can that be? The story ends just as the Red Guards have arrived.

I posted a review at the Reading Tub using our traditional template. I’ll be curious to see what our teen reviewers think. You can also read a review at Book Nut. If you have reviewed this book, you can add it to the Mr. Linky in the Reading Tub.

NOTES:
Little Leap Forward was a 2008 Cybils nominee in the Middle Grade Fiction category.

This is the first title reviewed for my Diversity Rocks! challenge.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 January 2009 9:23 pm

    This looks like an interesting book, it’s too bad the historical context isn’t more apparent. It’s tough, with a kids’ book, to find that balance in a story kids can relate to. Sounds like it’d be great for reading together while providing more historical info on the side, though. Thanks for the review!

  2. 13 January 2010 7:55 pm

    I love this book (here’s my review – http://www.papertigers.org/reviews/USA/papertigers/LittleLeapForward.html) – as do both my boys – and we were also very fortunate to see the stage adpatation of it in June last year –
    http://www.papertigers.org/wordpress/little-leap-forward-on-stage/ – this did include a scene in which Yue’s mother is arrested. It was certainly very powerful… but it gave a different nuance to the story and I can understand why they left it out of the book…
    We have

  3. 13 January 2010 7:59 pm

    PS How about joining our Reading the World Challenge – you could include Little leap Forward in that too :-)

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