Book Reviews, Homeschooling

Book Review: Middle-grade Novel Bronze & Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan

In your quest to add own-voices literature to your homeschool, don’t overlook translated novels! Translated books don’t try overly hard to be diverse, they simply are.

Written in Chinese by children’s author Cao Wenxuan, Bronze and Sunflower follows the two title characters through a summer in a rural village in China in the 1960s, shortly after Chairman Mao established agricultural labor camps during the Cultural Revolution.

Bronze and Sunflower, an award-winning middle-grade novel translated from Chinese, appeals to adults and children alike.

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This book, which won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing in 2016, is brilliant in its subtlety. There are no over-the-top morals at the end of this tale, but the story of Bronze and Sunflower is one you won’t soon forget.

It’s a slice-of-life novel, light on dialogue and rich in imagery. Bronze cannot speak, so we experience his world through the senses — smell, sight, touch, and taste. Helen Wang has done a masterful job translating not simply Cao Wenxuan’s language, but his rich imagery and poetic lyricism as well.

Since Bronze and Sunflower is written from the children’s point of view, the Cultural Revolution remains in the background of the story. We see hints: the name of the “The May Seventh Cadre School” for instance, alludes to Mao’s May Seventh Directive, which relocated artists and other city residents to distant rural villages to work the land and run indoctrination schools. While there are brief glimpses such as this into the adults’ world, the story is rooted in a child’s rural world. As we read, we escape into the reed-studded riverbank with Bronze and Sunflower, hold duck eggs in our hands, and watch as the skies sweep the fields of sunflowers to the ground.

It’s important to make sure our shelves contain a wide variety of diverse books, not just those which are centered around a main character’s trauma. Reading translated novels helps us do just that.

While there is plenty of tragedy woven into the realistic setting of Bronze and Sunflower, Cao Wenxuan hasn’t built this story exclusively around the hurt, but around the quotidian rhythms of ordinary life, and the enduring hope of love paired with sacrifice. Reading Bronze and Sunflower allows us to step into the ordinary life of another time and another culture, walking a mile in someone else’s woven reed shoes. (And here’s a Bronze and Sunflower study guide written by fellow second-generation international homeschoolers!)

There are lots of ways to read this book — I’ve listed them below. If you grab a copy, won’t you come back here and let me know what you think?


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