I cannot think of a time in the lives of American children when they will be expected to learn about modern day China. Yes, high school students are required to study world history and geography….but to understand the complexities of China during Mao's Cultural Revolution is not expected of American youths. Possibly, young people in college will learn about Mao if they take courses that specialize in modern Chinese history.
I know many Chinese American young people adopted into American families. Many of these young people have a natural curiosity about China's culture and history. Many do not. Many have parents that have a curiosity and interest in Chinese culture and history. Many do not. Many will travel to China on heritage tours….and many will not. However, in all of these cases, these young people will "meet" Mao in some way during their lives and be challenged to understand why he is important to China. As a parent, that does have an interest in Chinese culture and history; I find it difficult to explain Mao Tse Tung in simple terms. Hong's picture book, Mao and Me, is as good an explanation as I can give to young people from ages 8 to adult. I found this book in the Juvenile Biography section of my local library.
This book is two autobiographical stories in one. The first story is of how the author, born in 1963, enjoyed growing up as a typical kid in Shanghai…lots of illustrations show depictions of everyday life that I have seen in China from the architecture, style of clothing, living in an extended family, writing tablets in school, crowded buses and city streets, holiday traditions. However, the author is three years old when Mao's Cultural Revolution begins and it shapes his entire world from what he eats, or doesn't, how he is educated and programmed to become a part of Mao's revolution.
Throughout the weaving of both these stories, lines of the illustrations, colors and text all bear witness to a trying time of Chinese history. After my nine year old Chinese born daughter read the book her comment was: "This is so very sad". I'm ok with her reaction. I want her to know that there was a leader in China named Mao who was very famous when he was alive and still is after his death. Mao's leadership both inspired the people of China to strive toward greatness and was very difficult for his people to survive. In some important ways it was a sad time for China.
If a child is mature enough for Young Adult books (those written for an 8th grade audience and up), I would pair this picture book with the outstanding YA novel: Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Yin Chang Compestine. Also autobiographical, this story is a gripping account of life as a teen during the days of the Cultural Revolution in Whuan, (Hubei Province) China. Revolution is Not a Dinner Party has won numerous awards including an ALA Best YA Book in 2008 as well as a 2008 Best Social Studies Trade Book Award. The combination of Compestine's in depth description of 1970's China as well as Hong's picture book would be an excellent launch into a true study of the time period for young and adult students of this period of Chinese history.
Hong, C. (2008). Mao and Me. New York: Enchanted Lion Books
Compestine, Y. (2007). Dinner is Not a Revolution. New York: Square Fish Books