by Grace Lin
First sentence: "Far away from here, following the Jade River, there was once a black mountain that cut into the sky like a jagged piece of rough metal."
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Sometimes, what you really need in life is good traditional fairy tale. No bells and whistles, nothing super-fantabulous-exciting. Just a quiet, original fairy tale with all the traditional elements: a good-hearted (but not flawless) heroine, an adventure, a budding friendship, a lesson learned. Stick it in China, and you've got something magical.
Minli and her family live in the valley of the Fruitless Mountain, working hard every day to scrape by. Her mother is disgruntled, especially when Minli's father spends the evenings telling her stories about the Jade Dragon and the Old Man of the Moon. Then one day, Minli discovers that the stories may not be impossible after all, and sets out to ask the Old Man of the Moon how her family can make their fortune. Along the way, she will have adventures, make friends (with a dragon, among others), and learn a few things about herself.
The charm in this book is really in its simplicity. On the one hand, there's nothing grandiose and it's very traditional to the point of being predictable. But on the other hand, there were no wasted words, and the plot clipped along at a very quick pace. I realized at one point that this book would make an excellent read aloud: the words just cried out to be spoken aloud. That, and I think the pacing of the book works better as a story told rather than read. Not that I didn't enjoy reading it -- it wasn't edge-of-the-seat gripping, but it was charming, and I did want to know what happened next. But, to read it aloud to my girls, to give it that added suspension of seeing what will happen next, tomorrow night? I think that would have added a lot to the book.
As it was, though, it's a story well worth reading.