Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin.
Little Brown and Co, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2009. My edition 2011.
Middle grade fantasy, 279 pages plus Author’s Note and Reader’s Guide.
Lexile: 810L .
AR Level: 5.5 (worth 7.0 points) .
NOTE: This is a work of fiction although I’m not reviewing it on Fiction Friday.
Minli’s life in the Valley of the Fruitless Mountain is mostly drudgery, made easier by her father’s stories and more difficult to bear with her mother’s complaining. So she decides to listen to both and sets out on a quest for the Old Man of the Moon – a quest that will take her to unexpected places.
Although I didn’t know much about this one, I picked up a used copy because I’m familiar with some of Grace Lin’s picture books and recalled some reviews recommending it. I was absolutely blown away and need to read the rest of this series! I think the kids will like it too if they ever get around to reading it (we are so behind on reading).
This fantasy novel incorporates elements of Chinese culture and mythology but blends them into a new story. It utilizes stories-within-a-story plot devices very successfully.
One element that pleasantly surprised me was how Lin continued to incorporate the parental viewpoint. Minli is the main character, but her parents have their own short chapters, which often served to highlight the tension as we’d move away from the story at a particularly suspenseful moment. Another major character also has a section from their viewpoint, but it all made sense for the story.
Another lovely point is the illustrations scattered throughout the novel. There are several full-color full-page insert illustrations, and then there are smaller illustrations here and there. These add so much to the book, and I was surprised to get to the end and learn that they were done by the author herself! It’s fairly rare that someone is so gifted at writing and artwork. It’s possible that an outside artist might have had more technical skill, but they would not have been able to integrate the artwork so well into the novel.
I was iffy about reading this novel even though I’ve loved Lin’s picture books, because not many authors are able to successfully write picture books and chapter books and illustrate their own books.
This is a fantasy novel but at its core there are two big questions: what do you really need to be happy? and what does family mean?
The book explores different meanings of happiness and whether it is bought by money, beauty, love, or kindness. We meet several different families, from Minli’s small, impoverished nuclear family to a large extended family and a non-related family composed of dear friends and beloved animals. Both Minli and her parents separately explore these two questions and come to their own conclusions.
Another aspect of this I loved was that nothing is brought up which is not somehow relevant later. Lin has clearly taken the advice about Chekhov’s gun to heart and ties her narrative together tightly. Early on we begin experiencing revelations, but they only lead us to more mysteries, so instead of one giant reveal, there are a series of little aha! moments. Even if I was able to guess some elements, there were other surprises.
The chapters aren’t of equal lengths and the story-with-a-story format can be tricky, but this book would be a great read-aloud if you can work out the pacing. It’s intended for middle grade readers but I also enjoyed it as an adult and think (particularly given the length) it would also be appropriate for high school libraries. Aside from a few moments that could be scary for the youngest readers, there’s nothing to keep a precocious reader from enjoying this – it would make an excellent family read-aloud. Highly recommended.