On Wednesdays, my posts will focus on my correspondence with a group of eighth graders and their teacher, Lisa Herschberger, who teaches English at Goshen Middle School in Goshen, Indiana. We will be writing about the books we are reading, and Lisa and I hope to model how to talk about a story in more ways then just summarizing what happened. We hope to post our letters to and from each other, as well as letters from the students.
Mysterious Benedict Society is going on my "to read" list, but I want to read it with Hadley and Harper because I want to have the same experience you had reading it with Katie. To be "together in our own world" because of a story sounds lovely. It reminds me of a few years back when you, me, and Sarah read Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. Do you still have your jeans? I suppose that story is for another time.
The other reason Mysterious Benedict Society is going on my "to read" list is because I loved that the book explores the idea that there is more then one kind of intelligence, that it "comes in many different packages" as you wrote. And the idea that all the kids had to work together to move forward is so important. It seems like an ideal place to learn - where you figure out what you are good at and then help others to complete a task.
The book I want to talk about today is called Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. This is a book that I read for a book club that I'm in. We meet in Arlington, Virginia once a month and discuss children's literature. On this last meeting, the organizer of the group actually called Grace Lin and we got to talk to her about the book. It was so exciting!
The first thing that struck me before I even began reading Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is that the pages felt different then other books I've read. They were thicker. Also, there are 10 beautiful illustrations throughout the story, plus illustrations at the top of each chapter, and they're in color. For some reason, the layout of the book made me feel like I was about to read something very important and special.
The hardest part of talking about a book for me is writing a quick summary. I don't know if I'll write what's really important about the plot, or if I'll write what I remember and get it wrong, or leave a vital part out, etc. But basically Minli, the main character in the story, lives in a fruitless land and works very hard in the fields all day. She loves listening to stories her father tells her, but Minli's mother thinks the stories are useless. What good is a story if it doesn't put food on the table? For me, this was a huge theme in the book. Why are stories so important even when they don't bring us wealth? Anyway, Minli wants to do something to help her family's situation, and believes that if she can find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him why her family is poor, then she can help her mother be happy. Minli learned about the Old Man of the Moon through one of her father's stories, and this is where she got the idea. So Minli sets off on a wild adventure, and I followed along wide eyed.
There is so much I liked about this book, I'm not sure where to start. I liked that along Minli's travels, she would meet people that would explain something to her through a fairy tale. So while we are reading about Minlli, the story would break and we'd read about "The Story of the Paper of Happiness" or "The Story of the Dragon Gate." I liked this because I guess it felt like reading two books, but it also reinforced the idea that we tell (and create) stories to make sense of the way life is.
Along the way, Minli meets a dragon who becomes my favorite character. This is the sweetest dragon I've ever met, and he and Minli become best friends. The dragon can't fly, and wants to know why so Minli tells him to come along with her to ask the Old Man of the Moon. Probably the most beautiful part of the story is the part where Minli has to cross a long bridge and the dragon can't come with her because he's too big to cross it. So Minli goes by herself to see the Old Man of the Moon, and when she meets him she learns that she can only ask him one question. She must decide whether to ask why her family is poor, or why the dragon can't fly. I won't tell you what happens but I could read this part of the book over and over again.
While I'm writing this letter, I'm thinking about the story behind the book. Grace Lin's first husband died of cancer while she was writing Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. I think I remember hearing at some point in my book club that he told her to write this story and talk about all the places he wouldn't be able to go. I'm wondering now whether the dragon in the book represents Grace Lin's husband in some way. The dragon helped Minli get to a certain point in her journey, but couldn't go as far as Minli so he stays behind. In another scene, when the dragon brings Minli home to her parents, he stops at one point because of something he sees. The dragon acts differently after this point, and Minli wonders what is going on with him. After awhile he asks Minli if she can get to her village by herself because "for some reason, I feel as if I do not want to leave here....Strangely, I feel like I am home."
As hard as this is to wrap my head around, I'm wondering if this is Grace Lin's way of somehow "letting go" of her first husband. Minli loves the dragon, and the dragon loves Minli. But both of them have other places they need to be. I was so sad when Minli and the dragon parted, but it made sense that they couldn't travel together any more. And we see that both of them are very happy in the end of the story. It's not as though they've moved on and forgotten one another, rather, they are where they are and who they are because of one another.
I hear a lot that people like to read to leave what's going on in their world behind. I understand the appeal to this, but I like to enter a world through a book and take something back with me. As I wrote in the beginning of the letter, I think that stories are great ways to learn about your own life, and make meaning of the world around you. I know that idea was reinforced for me in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.
When I was reading your students' letters to me, I learned that several of them liked to draw and also like to write and read fantasy. I think they would really enjoy this book, especially the artists in your class. The pictures are amazing. Of course, so is the story.