Thursday, September 4, 2008

Book Review of Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing by Guo Yue and Clare Farrow

Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing by Guo Yue and Clare Farrow. Illustrated by Helen Cann (Barefoot Books, 2008).

Grades 3 to 6
8-year-old Leap Forward, living in an old part of Beijing in 1966, thinks his life is just about right. Sure, he misses his dead father, and it would be great to have a bit more food on the table – his mom and five sisters have to carefully count out every grain of rice. But Leap Forward flies kites with his best friend Little-Little, makes friends with pretty Blue, tends his silkworms, and tries to encourage his caged wild bird to sing by playing on a flute.

Leap Forward doesn’t think anything is wrong with all-white kites (rather than the multi-colored beauties of the previous generation) or all-blue clothing or revolutionary songs, and these facts are presented to the reader in a child’s accepting and nonchalant tone. But when the Cultural Revolution slams down on Beijing, Leap Forward can’t help but notice how narrow and limiting life is becoming. His friend Blue and his sisters must cut off their long hair or risk having it cut off by force. Kite-flying is banned, books and art are burned, and school is closed.

Suddenly, Leap Forward understands why Little-Little was always so troubled by his caged bird. “Wouldn’t you rather be free, just for a day, than spend a lifetime in a cage?” Little-Little asks. It is Little-Little, a free spirit by nature, who urges Leap Forward to go with him again to their spot by the river, away from the trucks and loudspeakers of the Red Guards, to fly a forbidden kite and to play music on the flute – not revolutionary songs or scales but wild and free music. When Leap Forward finally decides that he must let his caged bird fly free, something within him is able to stretch free of its bonds and fly free as well.

Never depressing or gray, this is an authentic child’s-eye view of Communist China. Try as it might to wring color, spontaneity, and joy from people’s lives, Mao’s government never did succeed. Red berries, yellow birds, and green mulberry leaves sparkle in Leap Forward’s story, making it come vividly to life. The many watercolor illustrations depict the people and places of Leap Forward’s world in winsome, jewel-toned detail.

This is an autobiographical book, and readers will be fascinated by Guo Yue’s afterword, which extends his story to the present day and includes several photos of the chubby-faced author as a boy.

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