Beautiful Books, children's literature, Grace Lin, Lit House, Lit House Press, O'Neill Literary House, stories, story, story-telling, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Why we read, young adult fiction
Last night, after a fifteen hour day of teaching prep, grading and teaching, I unwound by reading Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. The book was my niece’s selection for this month’s book club (our club with an exclusive membership of two). It was a gift from a relative who works in a library, and who includes this as one of her favorite books, and both she, and my niece, are right in their love of this beautiful little book. It is the story of Minli, a girl from a dull, brown village, who is quick and clever, and seeking to find wealth and comfort for her parents, journeys to ask the Old Man of the Moon how to change her family’s fortune. What unfolds is not just the girl’s journey, in which she befriends a dragon, along with many other friends including goldfish and kings, but it is also the journey of her parents, first to find her, and then to accept her absence and quest. The journey itself is engaging, with artful scenes of friendship and adventure, but in addition, threaded throughout the book are a series of inter-connected folk tales of the Old Man and the Moon, and the Tiger Magistrate, and many other Chinese folk tales. They are beautifully told and integrated into the main text, informing and interacting with the present action story. Various people tell the stories, but the primary storyteller is Minli’s father, Ba. He is also the one who gives voice to the power and necessity of stories. As the book tells it, his telling her stories every night is “What kept Minli from becoming dull and brown like the rest of the village,” (3) and yet while he tells his wife that “stories cost us nothing,” she replies that they “gain us nothing as well” (18) and thus the premise of the book is established. Throughout the course of the novel, the stories educate and deepen all the characters understanding of the world, as well as add to and enhances the beauty in their lives. Ba makes the distinction that while stories might be impossible, that doesn’t mean they are ridiculous (45). The characters tell about their lives in stories, and they seek to make sense of loss and hardship through stories, and they celebrate beauty through stories. Indeed, in this way, in a gentle, kid-friendly way, this book is quite meta in being a story about how stories are necessary.
But I don’t want to just write a post about how people are narrative creatures, and that we depend on story-telling to make sense of our world. I believe this, of course, but Grace Lin’s book does a better job than I can do on that today. Rather, the book also got me thinking about the beauty of books. Not just the beauty of the writing itself, but the actual craft of the appearance of a book. Where The Mountain Meets the Moon is a beautiful book. My niece has the hardback, with deep blues and reds on the book jacket, showing Minli riding on the back of Dragon, and throughout the book itself are similarly beautiful illustrations by Lin. While e-books have their place, and there is something to be said for having a library at your fingertips, I am convinced that traditional paper books will always have a place, because there is beauty and utility in the printed form that can not be replicated.
In college I apprenticed for a time at the Washington College Literary House Press, a hand-set letterpress art press in the O’Neill Literary House. The Lit House was open 24 hours for any writers who wanted a place to hang out, read, write, talk about books, pontificate about life, play board games, party, hold readings, drink too much cheap wine, make bad coffee, and borrow paperbacks. Shelves of paperbacks are scattered throughout the book, all free for the taking, which is another beauty of printed books – the pure democratic accessibility of them. Whether borrowed from a traditional library, or from a paperback lending library, paperback books are available for all, regardless of economic status. While working at the Lit House Press, I learned to love the beauty of type as I hand-set fliers and posters, and learned how to create clear, strong margins for framing words, and how to pick the right vibrant ink for the job, I also learned how to just be immersed with words at the Lit House itself. On sleepless nights, I would let myself into the press to distribute type, the mindless work of putting the type back into its compartments after a printing job was done. The work was soothing, and often would lull me into sleep, but just as often I’d find some book to read, or someone to talk to, and so would pass a night. It was a public place for the twenty-four hour praise of books, and I’m so glad that it was a part of my life, and that it continues to be a part of Washington College student’s lives.
That post wandered a bit off track, and then languished here in saved drafts for two days, so I’m going to post these thoughts, as unpolished and flawed as they are. There is more that I want to say about the beauty of books, but I’ll ramble about that some other day.