Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine (3 1/2 stars out of 4)--
When President Nixon visited China in the early 1970s, I remember imagining the exotic, exciting country that he toured, with the splendor of the Great Wall, the mysteries of the Forbidden City, and the New York-style buzz of Shanghai swimming in my prepubescent brain. I watched the news with my dad every night and marveled at the pictures of a country that seemed a million miles away. After reading Ying Chang Compestine’s first novel Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party I now understand that there was another China present in the 1970s not viewed by the visiting Americans, marked by pain, hunger, human rights violations, and lack of personal freedom not shown on television. Ms. Compestine successfully paints a picture of a volatile Maoist China always teetering on the edge of turmoil as it lumbers painfully onto the world stage.
Ling is almost nine and living a happy, reasonably carefree life in central China of the early 1970s. Ling’s father teaches her English and often longs for America, symbolized by a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge on their wall given to him by an American colleague: “[Dr. Smith] had invited Father to go to work in a hospital near the Golden Gate Bridge. But Father decided to stay and help build the new China” (14). Her parents work at the local hospital and they have a comfortable apartment and lifestyle. However, Maoist revolutionaries gradually take over the region, and after a shady political officer named Comrade Li moves into a section of their apartment, their lives gradually become more difficult. Ling’s parents are branded as bourgeois and Ling is suddenly lonely: “When I tried to talk to [my best friend Hong], she whispered, ‘I don’t want to be called a bourgeois sympathizer,’ and ran away” (77-78). Ling grows up in an increasingly hostile and alien world dominated by Chairman Mao, a Big Brother-type figure who the Chinese must worship to advance in society, and who they must at least tolerate to survive. When Dr. Chang is finally taken to prison for antirevolutionary activities, Ling envies the life of even the mice in the ceiling: “I envied the baby mice. They must have felt safe and happy to be with their parents. Tears rolled down my face” (147). As the revolution comes to a critical juncture, news is leaked out that Ling’s father is nearby, and she goes off to search for him and some stability and understanding in her life.
It is not surprising that Ms. Compestine has written several picture books; this novel works best as a portrait of an era seldom discussed or displayed in American literature, YA or otherwise. The author’s use of a simple, clearly autobiographical narrative poignantly presents a child’s innocent perception of major political movements she does not understand swirling around her life. The vocabulary is appropriate for the intermediate/middle level, and the descriptions feel authentic. Although certain scenes, like Ling’s 3:30 AM excursion with her mother to try to buy meat, show Ling maturing in a harsh world, Maoist China is the main character that undergoes the tragic journey in Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine. It is chilling but satisfying to watch Ling and her homeland grow up painfully, but together.


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