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China as seen through the eyes of children.

By Abby McGanney Nolan
Sunday, August 10, 2008

LITTLE LEAP FORWARD A Boy in Beijing By Guo Yue and Clare Farrow, Illustrated by Helen Cann | Barefoot, $16.99; ages 8 and up

Little Leap Forward is a slim volume, handsomely illustrated and brimming with sensory details of a Beijing neighborhood in the summer of 1966, just as the Cultural Revolution was taking a violent turn. Drawing on his own childhood, musician Guo Yue collaborated with his wife, Clare Farrow, to conjure up the world of an 8-year-old boy named Leap Forward, who lives with his family in two rooms of a musicians' courtyard. (Leap Forward explains that the government "put people of the same profession in courtyards together, like boxes of ingredients in a grocery shop.") He helps prepare family meals from rationed items and tends to his silkworms and goldfish. He plays with friends by the river, flying paper kites and catching fish. At school, he is berated for left-handedness.

The authors gently contrast the children's appreciation of color and music and history with Mao's determined stance against individuality. Leap Forward's alertness to the new political tide is keen: "I had never heard such quiet voices in the alleys before." An authorial message concerning a caged bird who doesn't sing isn't subtle, but there are wonderfully precise descriptions throughout of everyday experience as the political climate shifted that summer. Helen Cann's illustrations likewise are delicate and detailed, finding beauty in the deep blues of everyone's clothing, the converted old temples and the roof tiles shaped like waves.

DANCING TO FREEDOM The True Story of Mao's Last DancerBy Li Cunxin, Illustrated by Anne Spudvilas | Walker, $16.95; ages 5 to 8

Born in 1961 in northeast China, Li Cunxin grew up with his parents and six brothers, always hungry but "luckier than some in our village. We survived." At age 11, Li was sent to study at the Beijing Dance Academy, where he was now deprived not of food but of home and family. Years passed before he found a friend and then a teacher who inspired him to greatness. By the age of 21, he had become a ballet star, performing in London, Paris and Moscow. Li's dramatic 1981 defection to America is mentioned on the jacket of Dancing to Freedom, not in the book itself, so that important bit of information must be filled in for children. But Anne Spudvilas's illustrations require no explanations. Mixing traditional Chinese ink and watercolor on rice paper and oil paints on canvas, they convey the bitterly cold days of northern China in gorgeous grays as well as the commotion at the Beijing train station that swirls around a perfectly still young Li.

BEIJINGBy Richard Platt, Illustrated by Manuela Cappon | Kingfisher, $16.95; ages 6 and up

Spanning millennia -- from 16,000 B.C., when the Chinese capital was a small, marshy settlement, to the present -- this picture book explains many of the political upheavals Beijing has undergone, despite ever-thicker and higher walls. The enemy took different forms over the years: hyenas, bears and Mongol warriors, looting Western troops in the 19th century, and the old customs and ideas that Mao targeted a few decades ago. Although the book doesn't try to show the physical sprawl of Beijing over the last century, it does offer loads of facts, detailed pictures and a sense of just how many Ming Dynasty eunuchs it took to keep the emperor's palace running.

ELEPHANTS AND GOLDEN THRONES Inside China's Forbidden City By Trish Marx | Abrams, $18.95; ages 8 and up

Elephants and Golden Thrones is devoted to Beijing's most famous landmark, the enormous, walled palace-city built 600 years ago. Trish Marx's text is occasionally forbidding itself -- italicized sections told from different points of view (a ghost, an elephant) won't draw in all young readers -- but the informative chapters, well-captioned photographs and historical images are worth poring over. With its stories of elephant processions and gargantuan celebrations, the book allows readers to see for themselves that lavish excess is not an American invention.

Abby McGanney Nolan writes about children's books and pop culture.

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