The following is an article from the May, 2000 issue of Book Links.  
Reprinted with permission.

Book Strategies                                                         Focus On: 
                                                                       Ching Yeung Russell's
                                                                              First Apple

Modern China in Fiction  

by Lani Gerson

Teachers and librarians are able to find dozens of well-illustrated, well- written books of Chinese folktales.  As is clear from Suzanne Li's "Mulan and More" on p.15 [of Book Links, May 2000], much is available today, ranging from Disney's treatment of Mulan to the well-researched and more authentic books of Chinese folklore by Lily Toy Hong, Jeanne Lee, Laurence Yep, Ed Young, and others.  Folktales are helpful in establishing cultural context, interest, and meaning for children, but the impressions of the traditional literature they provide should be complemented by photos and stories of contemporary Chinese life. Otherwise, children are left with out-of-date and biased views of cultures different from their own.

When challenged to go beyond the abundance of Chinese folk literature in a search for good historical and contemporary fiction about China, librarians and teachers quickly discover that the majority of the books about twentieth-century China for children, available in English, have been written by Westerners.  Books by Jean Fritz and Betty Vander Els and earlier books by Pearl Buck, Eleanor Lattimore, and others form an interesting genre of autobiographically based fiction.  Wonderfully evocative of the landscape and the rhythms of a near-colonial lifestyle, these books are period pieces written by involved and well-informed outsiders.  These writers looked closely and felt deeply about the land and the people, but they still remain at a distance from China in fundamental ways.  Their books are of the Western experience of China.

Fritz, Vander Els, and others were the children of teachers and Christian missionaries working in China during the first half of the last century.  Most of these writers appear to have been, in varying degrees, sympathetic to the need for change in China.  With Mao's Long March and the success of the Communist revolution, all of these writers and their families were forced to leave and returned to the U.S.  It is evident that their formative experiences in China left profound impressions on them, and it is due to these experiences that this selection of literature exists.  Yet, we are left with the question of what other meaningful literature is there for young readers.

In looking further at new books about China, another trend becomes apparent.  In the last few years an increasing number of memoirs and personal accounts have been published.  Many of these recount the war years of the 1930s and 1940s in China, tell of lives lived during the Cultural Revolution, and describe the related political upheavals and repression of the last two decades.  Some of these, including Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang and A Little Tiger in the Chinese Night by Song Nan Zhang, are suitable for middle-school readers, and this group of books will likely be augmented in the future as more Chinese writers living in the West find their voices and choose to tell their stories to young readers.

There are, of course, fine works of nonfiction about China in libraries and bookstores.  Children can count their way, cook their way, and celebrate their way through China.  There are books about the Great Wall, works on the ancient Chinese dynasties, art books, and histories.

In addition to this body of literature, such authors as Ching Yeung Russell are telling stories about modern China for young readers.  Russell has written and published four books of fiction about young Ying, a girl growing up in China during the 1940s.  A series with which a reader can grow, the first three books  First AppleWater Ghost, and Lichee Tree were written for younger readers; Child Bride, with its more mature story line, is appropriate for middle-grade through middle-school readers.

Married to an American she met in Hong Kong, Russell now lives in South Carolina.  She writes in English, drawing upon her childhood memories.  In a recent telephone interview, Russell affirmed that 80-85 percent of her stories are true to her life experiences.  Working to reclaim and maintain a child's point of view and voice, she spoke of writing through tears, wishing to communicate to her American sons the realities of her childhood in southern China, and hoping that her stories would appeal to a wider audience.

In presentations at schools, Russell is often asked by students to explain the relative expense of an apple in the China of Ying's childhood.  She uses this as an opportunity to tell them about the hunger that she and millions of others experienced and about the limitation of trade and transportation in the countryside.  Supported, like many Chinese of her generation, by an extended family, Russell, like Ying  was separated from her parents for much of her youth.  In her books, as in conversation, Russell conveys the importance of the simple joys and traditional values of her culture, while not glossing over the suffering of many people in China in recent decades.

Russell explains that she set her books in the 1940s, but that her childhood and her experiences actually happened in the China of the 1950s, at the time of Mao's Great Leap Forward, and the resulting famines and political upheaval.  But geopolitical realities are a distant backdrop in Russell's books, which is partly why they work so well with young children.  Adult realities are certainly not denied, by Ying, her cousins, and her friends are very much in the foreground.  Their struggles, their play, and their work have a timeless quality.

Approaching First Apple

First Apple is one of the very few short fiction books about Chinese culture that are available for the young reader.  All of Russell's books are good complements to units on China, but First Apple, as the introductory story in the series, is an excellent choice for the second-, third-, or even fourth-grade teacher looking for an involving classroom reading experience.  It might be used as a part of a language arts program, or more intensely studied as the springboard for an integrated social studies, language arts/literature unit on China.

When we meet young Ying in First Apple, she is nine years old.  She lives with her grandmother, Ah Pau, in a small village southeast of Canton.  As her grandmother approaches her seventy-first birthday, Ying wants to give her the very special gift of an apple.  Ying has discovered that Ah Pau has long wanted to taste this luxury fruit, rare in their area of China.  Ying must first earn the money to buy the precious treat; then she needs to overcome other difficulties, including the threats and taunts of the classroom bully.

Ying is separated from her parents, who are working in Hong Kong, but, although she misses them, she is surrounded by cousins and other caring adults who help her.  The problems facing Ying are the problems of being a child.  Her challenges are not due to being Chinese, but are universal, set against the sights and sounds of China in the last century.

Although the concerns of most American children reading this book today so not precisely match Ying's, they can relate to her desires, fears, and internal conflicts about what is right and what is wrong.  Young American readers may be amazed by the simplicity of the pleasures of Ying's life, but the rich information about China and the interplay of the characters will draw them into the story.

The Story Continues

Three other novels by Russell continue the chronicle of Yeung Ying's life in twentieth-century China.  In Water Ghost, Ying is 10, and she is again absorbed in trying to make money; this time for a school excursion.  Ying has almost achieved her monetary goal when she feels compelled, partly out of guilt, to give her money to a poor old woman, the grandmother of a classmate who recently drowned.  Ultimately, ensuing misunderstandings bring understanding of ancient superstitions and compassion for flaws that are part of human nature. 

The third and fourth titles in this series, Lichee Tree and Child Bride, continue to tell Ying's story, carrying her into early adolescence and all the turmoil that is often part of coming-of-age anywhere in the world.  The political unrest and social upheaval of modern China are more clearly defined in these books, but still remain in the background.  The traditional ways of rural Chinese life, including the practice of arranged marriage, are confronted first by Ying's cousin in Lichee Tree, and then by Ying herself in Child Bride.

Ying's individual desires and loyalties to family in conflict with age-old superstitions and traditions draw young readers into all of these stories.  In the end, Ying's sweet gutsiness appeals to young Americans, just as they are intrigued by what they learn about China along the way.


Gather and display as many as possible of the household items and foods mentioned in Ying's story  incense sticks, calligraphy materials, lichee nuts, sugar cane, papayas, and mangos. (Some of these delicacies are available fresh in better grocery stores, and lichees can be found canned in stores that carry Asian foods.)

Read Chinese folktales, including various versions of those mentioned in First Apple: "The Moon Lady," "The Old Man Who Moved the Mountain," "The Cowherd," and "The Weaving Lady."

Have the group learn such poems as Li Po's "Thoughts on a Quiet Night" and T'ao Chien's "Back to Farm and Garden."  Perhaps a person from your community who speaks Chinese would be willing to read poems in Chinese to the class.

Role-play the conflict between Ying and Ng Shing, the bully.  Using a highly charged scene from the story, explore ways to respond to bullies, including Ying's "bargain" with Ng Shing.

Hold a junk sale/swap.  Students can organize their own swap or sale of toys, books, and games.  The money earned from the sale could be donated to a local soup kitchen or food pantry.

Give a note-writing assignment.  Ying's grandmother is loving and devoted to her, but Ying know she is a bit of a challenge.  In the book, Ying writes a thank-you note to her grandmother for caring for Ying when she was sick with a fever.  Students might fashion a thank-you or get-well card for a family member or friend.

Discuss beliefs and superstitions that are common to many cultures and those that are unique to other traditions.  Ng Shing swears by the Heaven God above him and the Earth God below him not to lie.  Explore other Chinese myths and beliefs by reading Five Heavenly Emperors: Chinese Myths of Creation by Song Nan Zhang. (Tundra, 1994).

Put Ying on the Map

Sweeney, Joan.  Me on the Map. 1996. 32p.  Crown, $12. (0-51770-095-6).  
Pre-school-Gr. 2.Use the model in this book to create a map of Ying's room on a map of her house, her house on a map of her village, carrying the idea all the way to a map of China on a map of the world.


Chang, Margaret and Raymond.  In the Eye of War. 1990.  198p.  Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, o.p.
Gr. 3-6.  During the final days of the Japanese occupation of China, Shao- shao observes traditional Chinese customs while the chaos of war engulfs him and his family.

Fritz, Jean.  Homesick: My Own Story. 1982.  160p.  Putnam, $14.95 (0-399- 20933-6).
Gr. 3-7.  In this novel, based upon her own experiences, the author vividly describes childhood in China early in the twentieth century.

Schaffer, Edith.  Mei Fuh: Memories from China. 1998.  90p.  Houghton, $16 (0- 395-72290-X)
Gr. 2-5.  These connected stories recount the daily lives and experiences of an American girl and her family living in China in the early 1900s.

Schlein, Miriam.  The Year of the Panda.  1990.  85p.  Harper, $13 (0-690-04866- 1); paper, $4.50 (0-06-0440366-1).
Gr. 3-7.  When a Chinese boy rescues a starving baby panda, he learns why pandas are endangered and what the Chinese government and others are doing to save them.

Vander Els, Betty.  The Bombers' Moon.  1985. 129p.  Farrar, paper, $4.50 (0-374- 40877-7).
Gr. 5-7.  The children of missionaries in China are sent to a boarding school, but as war draws close, the children are evacuated to India.


Jiang, Ji-li.  Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution.  1997. 285p.  Harper/Collins, $14.95 (0-06-027585-5); paper. $4.95 (0-06-446208-0).
Gr. 5-9.  Like other Chinese school children, Ji-li joined the Cultural Revolution with enthusiasm, but her growing disillusionment became profound when she was asked to betray her parents.

Zhang, Song Nam.  A Little Tiger in the Chinese Night: An Autobiography in Art.  1993.  48p.  Tundra, $19.95 (0-88776-320-0).
Gr. 3-7.  Zhang, an artist in exile from China, tells his own illustrated story within the context of Chinese politics and recent history.

Sampling Russell

Child Bride. 1999.  136p.  Boyds Mills, $15.95 (1-56397-748-6).  Gr. 2-6.

First Apple.  1994.  128p.  Boyds Mills, $13.95 (1-56397-206-9).  Gr. 1-5.

Lichee Tree.  1997.  128p.  Boyds Mills, $14.95 (1-56397-629-3).  Gr. 4-8.

Moon Festival.  Illus. By Christopher Zhong-Yuan Zhang.  1997.  32p.  Boyds Mills, $15.95                  (1-56397-596-3).  All ages.

Water Ghost.  1995.  192p.  Boyds Mills, $14.95 (1-56397-413-4).  Gr. 2-6.

Resource Centers

For more information on books and materials concerning contemporary China, contact:

New England China Network and Primary Source
P. O. Box 381711
Cambridge, MA 02138
(617) 923-9933

Five College Center for East Asian Studies
8 College Lane, Smith College
Northhampton, MA 01063
(413) 585-3751

Lani Gerson is an elementary library media specialist with the Newton public schools, Newton, Massachusetts.  She is active in the New England China Network and has written several articles for professional journals.

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Connecting Books, Libraries, and Classrooms