If you watched The Today Show yesterday (Friday, December 4), then you got to see Grace Lin talking about her new book, which was featured on Al Roker's book club for children. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a different kind of fantasy: a bearer of fairy tales, a tender-hearted fable, and a unique adventure set in ancient China.
A young girl named Minli lives in a small village on Fruitless Mountain, a place where rice will scarcely grow for lack of water. The reason lies in legend—the Jade River lost her dragon children when she resentfully withheld water from the people of the earth and her children decided to make up for her pettiness by ending the famine themselves. "The Story of Fruitless Mountain" is only the first of many tales that are recounted in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. I've seen the "story within a story" device work poorly in the past, but Lin's stories seamlessly work to support the larger plot, even as they entertain listeners both inside and outside the pages of her book.
Still more impressive, Lin has done this by slightly reworking traditional tales. I've read collections of Chinese fairy tales, and I saw glimpses of those stories in the ones recounted by Lin's storytellers. Paintings coming to life, ghost stories, talking fish, and stories with Confucian lessons cautioning against greed are just a few familiar themes from Chinese folklore that Lin draws on to build Minli's own tale.
Minli's story begins when she spends one of her two copper coins to buy a goldfish. Her mother, who worries constantly about the family's poverty, is angry over the waste, not only of the coin, but of the food that will be needed to feed the fish. Minli bought the fish because the goldfish man told her it would bring her family good luck, but she reluctantly takes the fish to the river that night and lets it go, thinking that her mother is probably right. The goldfish then speaks to her, thanking her for its freedom and counseling her to seek the answers to her questions from the Old Man of the Moon.
Determined to change her family's fortunes, plucky Minli sets out on a quest, following the goldfish's directions to look for the magical old man.
When Minli's parents read her note, they are heartbroken. They try to find their daughter, but eventually go home to wait and hope for her return. Unlike many fantasy adventures, this story shows poignantly how the parents miss their child, worrying about her wellbeing. Minli, for her part, misses her parents and worries about them while she is gone. These moments are not overdone. Instead they are simple and touching.
Lin's language is also simple, but effective. Watch for her metaphors; for example, she says, "Every night the stars filled the sky like snowflakes falling on black stone."
Minli finds a traveling companion along the way, a dragon who cannot fly. (When she encourages him to accompany her to ask the Old Man of the Moon for help, I pictured Dorothy telling the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion to join her on her journey!) Minli must find a way to talk to the king of the City of Bright Moonlight in order to complete her quest. She has further troubles with monkeys and tigers before reaching her goal. She also meets helpful people such as an orphan who owns a buffalo and has befriended a mysterious magical girl, a pair of laughing twin children who defeat great evil by playing on a villain's anger, and, of course, the Old Man of the Moon. An episode involving the gift of a coat is especially lovely.
In keeping with the kindness that weaves through the narrative like a magical red thread, Minli must decide whether to make a great sacrifice for a friend in the book's final pages.
A further strength of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is the way Lin has quietly tied all of the pieces of her plot together in regards, not only to present events, but to the past—the past of a king, of a green tiger, of a goddess, of a wonderfully happy family, and of Minli's dragon friend.
Clear back at the root of the story is the discontentment of Minli's mother, which quietly echoes the anger and loss of Jade River.
Many of the characters in the book are poetically kind, yet they also seem real and rounded. Lin manages to tell a moral tale without preaching. Her lessons flow as beautifully as a river down a mountain where flowers and fruit do grow, after all.
Like so many books on the shelves of your library or bookstore, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is an adventure and a fantasy, but it is something more besides. In an age when commercialism too often overcomes the simplest and best truths, Grace Lin tells a story which conveys a kind of beauty of the heart.
As if that weren't enough, the author created lovely color-plate illustrations to accompany the tale. Invest in a new treasure for your family—go out and find a copy of this book.
Note: I learned about Where the Mountain Meets the Moon because Grace is a member of the fantasy writers' blog group I belong to, The Enchanted Inkpot.