The 2012 picture book Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin is a fictional account of Rendi’s (a young boy who ran away from home) adventures in the Village of Clear Sky, where he ended up working as a choirboy at the local inn. While there, Rendi attains a better understanding of himself, which in the end results in transforming his formerly arrogant attitudes towards life, in general, and those around him, in particular.
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One of the book’s main themes is concerned with the absence of the Moon – something that instills Starry River of the Sky with the clearly defined Freudian sounding. In her book, Lin also explores the theme of “female wisdom” (embodied by the character of Madame Chang) and the theme of “interconnectedness” between all living creatures – the book’s feature reflective of the author’s holistic perception of the surrounding reality.
Grace Lin (born in 1974) is an American writer/illustrator. She attained public prominence in 2010 when her children’s book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was chosen for the Newbery Award (Starry River, 2012). As of today, Lin continues to write children’s fairy tales with her most recent contribution, in this respect, being the 2016 illustrated book When the Sea Turned to Silver.
Most literary critics tend to hold the Starry River of the Sky in high regard. Specifically, the author is being credited with having succeeded in providing her story with a “rich cultural context,” as well as with ensuring the book’s “overall exquisite design” (Starry River, 2012, para. 2). Lin’s picture book is also commonly praised for the fact that it promotes a number of presumably progressive ideas, such as forgiveness and tolerance.
The author draws on the literary tradition of Chinese folk stories. The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated with regard to the non-linear structure of the book’s plot and the fact that most of the themes and motifs, featured in it appear to have a strong “holistic” (or “Oriental”) sounding to them.
The behavior of many book characters does seem stereotypical to an extent. For example, throughout the initial chapters of Starry River of the Sky, Rendi exhibits a certain tendency to address life-challenges in a rather impulsive manner. And, as it can be inferred from the book’s discursive context, such his mental predisposition is directly concerned with the character’s young age – all in full accordance with the Confucian idea that impatience is a main vice of youth.
The setting is indeed a critical part of Lin’s story. After all, the village’s
very name contains a certain clue as to the significance of the plot’s would-be developments. At the same time, however, the author intentionally strived to avoid overburdening her story with too much of “Chinese authenticity.” The rationale behind the author’s decision in this respect is quite apparent – Starry River of the Sky is intended to target specifically the Western-based audiences of young readers.
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It is quite obvious that Lin’s book is written from the omnipotent perspective, which “allows for much greater freedom and flexibility, in that the author can move around inside the story and enter the thoughts and feelings of any of the characters” (Horning, 2010, p. 156). However, it is doubtful whether the author acted adequately while deciding to write her book from the omnipresent point of view, especially given the targeted readers’ age range (8-12 years old), “(writing from the omnipresent point of view) can make the story more difficult for young readers” (Chapters 7-8, 2010, p. 156).
The plot Starry River of the Sky appears rather confusing. One of the reasons for this is that the lengthy Chinese folktales, featured throughout the book’s entirety, disrupt the chronological order of the plot’s developments – hence, making it somewhat challenging for young readers to follow the story.
Many of the book’s themes are indeed controversial. In this regard, we can refer to the theme of Rendi’s heightened emotional sensitivity, which causes him to act hysterical on many occasions, “’ The night is crying!’ Randi said, unable to stop himself. ‘Don’t you hear it? It’s so loud!’” (Lin, 2012, p. 61). It is understood, of course, that such an author’s description of the main character parts away from the conventional outlook on what one’s normal boyhood should be all about.
I believe that the book’s subjects and themes do have a negative effect on its overall appeal. The rationale behind this suggestion has to do with the clearly defined postmodern sounding of Starry River of the Sky, which supposedly “offers young readers a chance to feel a bit bigger, older, and wiser” (Salisbury & Styles, 2012, p. 14) while, in fact, making the book quite unintelligible.
Lin’s picturebook does seem to draw rather heavily on the current discourse of “political correctness,” concerned with promoting the idea that there is no psychological difference between men and women. This explains the strongly defined emotional-mindedness of Rendi (considered to be a “feminine” mental trait), which he never ceases to manifest over and over as the book’s plot unravels (Storysnoop, 2012). Obviously enough, the author wanted to encourage children to think that there is nothing wrong about boys acting like girls and vice versa.
As a result of having read Lin’s picturebook, I came to conclude that the standards of fiction-writing (for children) in the West have dropped rather substantially – not the least because, as it was shown with respect to Starry River of the Sky, the concerned pursuit now serves the purpose of ideological (“politically correct”) indoctrination.
One of the provided review’s discursive implications is that for a children’s book to represent an objective value, it must be written in a clear/straightforward manner with its subject matter being well-adjusted to correlate with the targeted audience’s psychological/cognitive predispositions. In this respect, Starry River of the Sky stands out as the counterexample. There are, however, still many good children’s books out there that exemplify high quality in fiction-writing for young readers. Some of them are as follows:
Dahl, R. (1996) James and the giant peach. London, England: Puffin Books.
This picturebook contains the story of a young boy James traveling around the world inside of a giant peach. As opposed to what it is the case with Starry River of the Sky, Dahl’s picturebook naturally attracts young readers – hence, the book’s best-selling status. The reason for this is that this book’s themes and motifs are something to which children can actually relate.
Floca, B. (2013). Locomotive. New York: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books.
This richly illustrated informational book is about the history of trains/railroads in the US. The book takes advantage of children’s natural predisposition towards learning about technical gadgets (as opposed to growing hysterical about the imaginary absence of the Moon, as seen in Lin’s book). Partially, this explains why Locomotive was awarded the Caldecott Medal.
Williams, M. (2013). Ancient Egypt: Tales of gods and pharaohs. Somerville: Candlewick Press.
This graphic novel introduces children to what used to be the realities of living in ancient Egypt. Unlike what it is the case with Starry River of the Sky, Williams’ book represents high educational value. The graphic novel’s yet another strength is that its illustrations are very colorful and straight down to a point.
Chapters 7-8, (1997). In K. Horning, From cover to cover: Evaluating and reviewing children’s books (pp. 138-180). New York: HarperCollins.
Throughout these chapters, the author provides readers with some basic clues as to how to distinguish high-quality children’s books from those that belong to the dumpster. According to Horning, the story contained in such a book must have a clearly recognizable purpose. Unfortunately, it is quite impossible to tell what kind of purpose does Lin’s book aim to serve, with the possible exception of helping young children to develop a strong distaste for reading.
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Willems, M. (2011). We are in a book! Glendale: Disney-Hyperion.
This early reader book employs a really imaginative (and effective) technique for encouraging children to read. As compared to the Starry River of the Sky, Willems’ book is really engaging, in the emotional sense of this word. Because of it, We are in a book! It does have what it takes to be recommended for reading by young kids.
Lin, G. (2012). Starry River of the sky. New York: Little Brown Books.
Salisbury, M. & Styles, M. (2012). Children’s picturebooks: The art of visual storytelling. London, England: Laurence King Publishing.
Starry River of the sky (review). (2012). Web.
Starry River of the sky (review). (2012). Web.
Storysnoop, S. (2012). Starry River of the sky (review). Web.