It was my tween who encouraged me to reread Li Cunxin’s Mao ‘s Last Dancer. During a family meal, he commented that the saddest thing he has ever read was the bit in Mao’s Last Dancer where the young Li wants to surprise his mother by cooking the meal and in the process breaks all the good dishes and wastes the scarce food. The conversation starter is long forgotten but the ‘it made me cry’ uttered by a 12 year old sent me back to the book.
There are many brutal, moving and sad scenes in Mao’s Last Dancer so what is it that makes this one, a small boy wanting to please his family, the saddest of all for a young boy a world away. Is it this was the scene close enough to his own experiences to feel empathy for, the others involving brutality too far removed (thankfully) from his reality?
When I had finished reading I reminded my son that he had first read The Peasant Prince, a gift on his 9th birthday. Interestingly he remembered this as a different story, one about a boy and his father, a father who made him kites and told him stories.
Off to the bookshelf, a quick reread and I can see how he would remember that. Li’s father told the story of a little frog living in a deep dark well. The frog tried to escape, his father said it was no use, he had been trying his whole life. I remembered how Declan wrote to Li Cunxin, wanting to know more about his friend ‘The Bandit’. Bonds with fathers and friendship – two experiences he could relate too, ones he was exploring a world away from Li Cunxin’s A Peasant Prince.
What if I drip feed information about Mao’s regime, read with him Andre Leblanc’s The Red Piano, and share what I thought of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress –then ask him to reread Mao’s Last Dancer …? Would the take aways be very different?