My almost 3-year-old son Milo and I are great fans of Grace
Lin’s illustrated children’s books, Dim
Sum for Everyone! and The Ugly
Vegetables. In Starry River of the Sky, Lin takes on an older set of readers with
a novel that circles around a rich tapestry of Chinese myths, particularly the
story of the Moon Lady. Although I am
not accustomed to reading children’s novels, I must admit I could not put this
A young runaway, Rendi, finds himself stranded in the
Village of Clear Sky, where the moon does not shine. Taken in by the local innkeeper, Rendi is set
to work as the chore boy. Rendi is trained by the innkeeper’s young daughter,
Peiyi, who treats him with suspicion because, in her experience, “Everyone
leaves.” Peiyi’s mother had died and her
older brother, Jiming, has recently left the Village of Clear Sky.
The most distinguishing feature of the Village of Clear Sky
is a large stone slab that seems to continue beyond the horizon. Peiyi proudly tells Rendi that this is the
Stone Pancake and that her ancestor created it many generations ago. At night, Rendi hears mournful crying, which
he attributes to the sky. Suspecting
that he is the only one who hears the wailing, Rendi tells no one for fear that
others will say he’s crazy.
It’s a sad place to be stranded and Rendi immediately
resents Village of Clear Sky. He cannot
wait until a traveler comes by so that he can stow away in their cart for a
better destination. Nobody seems to come
to the village, however, and Rendi spends his days doing mundane chores and his
nights being kept awake by the sky’s tortured wailing.
One day, a beautiful and mysterious guest, Madame Chang,
arrives at the inn. She pays for a month
of lodging and meals. Rendi and Peiyi
are immediately drawn to her, and Madame Chang entrances them by telling them
stories -- variations of Chinese myths that may be familiar to some Hyphen readers. By telling stories,
Madame Chang gains Rendi’s trust and challenges him to tell his own stories,
including why he runs away from home. Throughout the narrative, there is the underlying questions of why Rendi hears
the mournful wailing from across the mysterious Stone Pancake and why the moon
is missing from the sky.
In reading Grace Lin’s picture books to Milo, I have often
wished her books were available when I was a child, as they tell and illustrate
the story of the Chinese American experience, such that my own family
experience was normalized. Lin has also
written novels exploring the Chinese-American experience in her Pacy Lin
Starry River of the
Sky, along with its predecessor, Where
the Mountain Meets the Moon, is a departure of sorts in that it is a
fantastical past that illuminates traditional stories that might have been told
by my parents. Folktales, in particular, illuminate beliefs and values held by
a society; in this case, the value of family, community, tradition and
What I especially like about Starry River is that it highlights the importance of stories and
story telling in defining who we are.
For young readers in a formative stage of life, especially young Asian
Americans, this can be an empowering lesson -- a way of affirming one’s Chinese
identity in a Western-dominant culture. These books were sorely missing from my life as a child, and as an Asian
American mother, I am grateful for writers like Grace Lin who are writing for
my son’s generation.
I did, however, have some issues with the ending of Starry River. It feels somewhat convenient and still
incomplete. I did want to know what
happens to Rendi after the end of the novel, how he handles the consequences of
his decision, which does not solve all his problems. I like that the ending is not tied into a
nice bow, but I remain curious as to Rendi’s future and how he will find his
own way through a challenging childhood.
Starry River of the
Sky is definitely an engaging read, one that I am happy to keep for when
Milo grows up. He is, of course, going
to be a reader.
Sabina Chen reads,
writes, and chases after her toddler in New Hampshire.