Friday, April 10, 2015

Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

genre: middle grade/young adult memoir

Ji-Li, at twelve, feels like her life is on a path that would make Mao Tse-tung proud.  She excels at her schoolwork.  She works hard at everything she tries.  She understands the plight of the people and is willing to fight for the glorious revolution.

But then she finds out something about her past that makes her and her family at risk in this new China.  Despite all her efforts to be a model citizen, she may never get what she desires most: a place of honor in the service of Chairman Mao.

My son read this for his 6th grade English class and so I thought I would give it a try so we could talk about it.  It was so engaging! I'm not surprised that he actually has already read it twice :)  Ji-Li's story is so painful and frightening - we watch her go from a place of glowing pride and a sense of happy expectancy to a life where she is dealing with not only ridicule from her peers but actual fear for the lives of her parents and pressure from unkind adults in authority.  Even young readers can see how unfair the situation in her country is but at the same time, you can see how brainwashed Ji-Li is.  You can contrast the way people are treating each other with what they claim to believe.  You can see power go to people's heads and how truly ridiculous the entire Cultural Revolution was.  More than ridiculous, a tragedy of massive proportions.  Whenever I read about what was lost it makes me feel so sad and angry - the art, the culture, the beauty of China burned and mocked in the street.

I love how hard she is trying to be a good daughter and a good friend.  The writing is sparse and straightforward and gives you a great sense of what life was like for an average Chinese person living in the city during the 1960's.  I really hope it makes the kids in my son's class think about the freedoms that we take for granted here, I know it certainly did that for me.  My only qualm is that I would've liked a little bit more about how she figured out how she and her fellow counrymen had been completely deceived - by the end of the book you can tell by her choices that she's figuring it but it ended a little soon for me.  Despite that, I would recommend this book for kids and adults interested in the topic.

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