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Two lonely kids form a lifesaving freindship in a tale from one of China’s most popular authors

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Bronze and Sunflower
By Cao Wenxuan, Translated by Helen Wang, Walker Books, 386 pages, $17

China has a literary canon at least 2,000 years old filled with fables and myths, fox spirits and dragons, but a minuscule tradition of books specifically for children. For much of China’s history, books were a luxury reserved for the elite, and children learned to read by reciting the classics. After Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949, he initiated a nationwide literacy campaign. Boys and girls — and their parents — learned to read, but the country was still so poor that buying books for reading at home, apart from the “Little Red Book”, was beyond the reach of the masses. Then, between 1981 and 2008, as more than 500 million people in China moved out of “extreme poverty” as defined by the World Bank and began to pursue the deeply held belief that education is the primary tool to move up in society, families began to purchase books for their children. It is within this new atmosphere that Cao Wenxuan has become one of China’s most prolific and popular authors, publishing over 100 works, including novels, short stories, essays and picture books. Last year, he won the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the most prestigious international honour for children’s literature. His 2005 novel Bronze and Sunflower is his first to be published in the United States.

Sunflower, age 7, and her father, an acclaimed artist known for his sculptures of sunflowers cast in bronze, are living at a so-called cadre school deep in the countryside. The time period isn’t stated, but the details of what happens to the “city people” are hinted at: It’s the Cultural Revolution, and artists, professors and other educated people have been sent to the middle of nowhere to do hard labour during the day and attend political indoctrination meetings at night. This leaves Sunflower, the only child in the compound, to fend for herself. The landscape Cao describes is beautiful — reed marshes stretching as far as the eye can see, a meandering river, a pretty village on the opposite bank — but Sunflower is alone and lonely, “like a solitary bird in a vast blue sky with nothing for company but the sound of its own beating wings.”

One day Sunflower climbs into a boat to see if she can pole across the river to the village from which she can hear children singing and laughing. Things go wrong, and she’s rescued by Bronze, the only child of the poorest family in the village. A devastating trauma has left him mute, so he, too, is “as lonely as the only bird in the sky, the only fish in the river, the only horse on the steppes.”

When Sunflower’s father dies, Bronze’s family takes her in. Orphans who must find their own ways and cobble together new “families” are common in children’s literature — Heidi, Anne of Green Gables and Harry Potter, to name a few — but Sunflower’s journey is especially arduous. A storm blows apart the family’s home, a plague of locusts devours the crops, and people nearly starve to death. Cao’s descriptions are evocative but sometimes horrifying: “But there was no sky, just a seething mass of screeching locusts blocking out the early-morning light. The rising sun was like a large round pancake covered in black sesame seeds.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series exposed generations of children to the hardships of pioneer life, while also teaching practical, if perhaps no longer useful, lessons on how to do farm chores. Similarly, Cao draws on his own experiences of growing up in the countryside to describe how to harvest and use cogon grass to build a roof, make a necklace out of icicles, weave reeds into shoes and collect arrowhead corms — a tuber sometimes eaten during the Chinese New Year’s celebration.

Some parents may be troubled by Cao’s old-fashioned views about girls. If Sunflower comes up with an original idea or plan, she typically must be saved. If she gets lost in the marsh or picked on by the village bully, Bronze rescues her. If she does something wrong, Bronze volunteers to take the blame. Cao has written a female protagonist whose father makes sunflowers cast in bronze and who is herself called Sunflower, a girl very much cast and shaped by Bronze. To read their adventures is to be embedded in the Chinese countryside — for good and bad. The daily circumstances of their lives may be different from those of children elsewhere, but the emotions and relationships are universal.

Bronze and sunflower

– New York Times News Service

- Lisa See’s latest novel is “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.”