Monday, January 21, 2013

Starry River of the Sky

Starry River of the Sky
Written by Grace Lin
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012
ISBN # 9780316125956
Grades 3 and up

Book Review

No one in the Village of Clear Sky seems concerned that the moon has been absent from the sky for some time, but it’s the first thing Rendi notices when he finds himself stranded in the desolate village. That and the distinct weeping he believes is the sky lamenting its loss. Rendi bides his time as a chore boy for the local innkeeper until the day he can hitch a ride with another traveler and continue on his journey, but the only guest at the inn is a mysterious woman who arrives by foot and tells long forgotten tales of the moon and the village. Yet it is in those tales that Rendi begins to suspect where help and hope lie – not just for the moon’s return but for the village itself and the past he left behind. Newbery Honor winning author Grace Lin delivers another captivating novel with Starry River of the Sky. As in When the Mountain Meets the Moon, a 2010 Newbery Honor book, Lin once again draws upon ancient Chinese folk tales to seamlessly weave stories within stories that offer delightful surprises and connections with each page. Lin’s exquisitely lush text serves as a reminder that children’s novels can—and should—rival literature for adult readers. Moreover, she drizzles vibrant, full-color illustrations throughout the pages as chapter headers and full-page spreads. A must-read for any part of your literacy teaching, or an engaging addition to your social studies units, Starry River of the Sky offers fiction and folk tale at their best.


Teaching Ideas and Invitations

  • The Art of Oral Storytelling. Rendi’s anxiety about telling a story is not an uncommon experience. Storytelling is not as easy as it seems, though, and skilled storytellers will explain how they study and practice it as a craft. Have students explore and practice the art of storytelling. They might tell a favorite fairy tale, family story, or a story they’ve written themselves. You might also refer to storytelling resources like Pete Seeger’s Storytelling Book, NPR’s Story Corps, or the National Storytelling Network (see Further Explorations section below). 
  • Layering Stories within Stories. Each of the tales told by Madame Chao, Rendi, and Peiyi are literally placed within the narrative of Rendi’s story. Grace Lin adds another layer by having the characters reveal some of the stories out of chronological order. Have students first map out the chronological sequence of each tale (e.g., the stories of WangYi, the Magistrate Tiger, Peiyi’s ancestor who moved the mountain, etc.) on a time line. Don’t forget the overarching narrative of Rendi’s adventures. Then, invite them to draw connections (literally with arrows if you want) among the stories to illustrate Lin’s amazing dexterity as a storyteller herself. Here are some other ideas for extension activities: You can chart the timeline for When the Mountain Meets the Moon, if your students read it, and see what connections exist with Starry River of the Sky. Or, you might you might want to do a similar activity with is Louis Sachar’s Holes, so that students can see how tightly woven and layered the novels are. As another extension activity, challenge your students to write their own story-within-a-story. 
  • Mentor Text for Writing Folktales. Folktales tend to follow certain patterns regarding their character archetypes, story arcs, settings, and themes. Read a few other examples of Chinese folktales (use some of the websites and books listed in Further Explorations), as well as folktales from other cultural traditions. Invite students to compare and contrast the kinds of literary elements they find across the stories. Then have them write folk stories of their own to share with others. 
  • Cultural Folktales in Our Classrooms. Most likely, your students come from a variety of cultural backgrounds and may know a few cultural folktales of their own. Invite students to inquire into some of the folktales from the cultural traditions represented among them. Have them tell those tales through a variety of modes and media (e.g., oral storytelling, comic book, written narrative, Voicethread presentation) to draw on students’ individual strengths. Set aside a day or
    two to share the tales with one another – and don’t forget to invite their families! 
  • Moon Myths and Legends. Have your students research and read a variety of myths and legends about the moon (see some of the websites listed below in Further Explorations). For example, Native American cultures hold several legends that explain the moon’s origins, physical features, and cycles. You might also want to share Marilyn Singer’s A Full Moon is Rising (see our entry at http://classroombookshelf.blogspot.com/2012/01/full-moon-is-rising-poems.html), which is a collection of poems about the moon that explores topics such as these. Using these sources as mentor texts and for details, invite students to write their own legends about the moon.
  • Character Descriptions. Grace Lin’s skill as a writer shines throughout the novel, especially when describing characters. For example, when introducing Madame Chang, she writes:
    “She was not like the painted ladies of the court, who giggled and swayed like flowers as the wind blew. Nor did she resemble a broad-shouldered peasant woman, thick and browned by the sun. Her features were fine and smooth, as if she had been carved from ivory, and the light in her dark eyes made them shine like stars. She stood with the elegance of a willow tree, and even though she wore the cotton robes of a commoner, both Rendi and Peiyi felt as if they should kowtow before her” (p. 25).
    Analyze such descriptions in terms of word choice and figurative language, and how they convey both the physical features and personality of each character. Then challenge your students to describe a character from another book or a person from real life in similar ways.
  • Figurative Language. As she does when describing characters, author Grace Lin incorporates plenty of figurative language into her narration. In fact, she seems to include each category of figurative language, from rich similes and metaphors to clever alliteration and vivid personification and hyperbole. Assign a different chapter to small groups of students, and have them identify Lin’s examples of figurative language, and compile a class master list of them. Post the list in the class, and encourage your students to refer to it for help and inspiration, as they would a Word Wall, when writing any genre of text.
  • Author Study. Starry River of the Sky is the fifth novel by author Grace Lin, but it is also the latest work in a long line of picture books and beginning reader books as well. Obtain multiple copies of her books and conduct an author / illustrator study. Ask your students to identify patterns in setting, theme, character, and plot across the titles. Examine Lin’s storytelling techniques in the books, as well as her style of illustration. Gather information about Lin from her website listed below, your local librarian, the Internet, and as other biographical sources. 

Further Explorations

Books

Bosse, M. (1996). The examination. New York: Square Fish.

Lin, G. (2007). The Pacy Lin series. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
--- (2007). The year of the dog (Pacy Lin #1).
---(2009). The year of the rat (Pacy Lin #2).
---(2012). Dumpling days (Pacy Lin #3).

Lin, G. (2009). Where the mountain meets the sky. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

McCaughrean, G. (2001). The kite rider. New York: HarperTrophy.

Namioka, L. (2000). Ties that bind, ties that break. New York: Laurel Leaf.

Wilson, D. L. (1998). I rode a horse of milk white jade. New York: HarperTrophy.

Yang, G. L. (2006). American born Chinese. New York: First Second.


Books of Chinese Folk Tales

Carpenter, F. (1973). Tales of a Chinese grandmother. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing.

Fang, L. (1995). The Ch'i-lin purse: A collection of ancient Chinese stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Hume, L. C. (1962). Favorite children's stories from China and Tibet. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing.

Lin, A. (1978). The Milky Way and other Chinese folk tales. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

Werner, E. T. C. (1994). Myths and legends of China. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Yip, M. (2004). Chinese children's favorite stories. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing.

Yuan, H. (2006). The magic lotus and other tales from Han Chinese. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.




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