The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl, edited and introduced by Pierre Haski, translated from the French by Lisa Appignanesi (HarperCollins, $15.99; ages 10-up). You don't review this small book; you tell people about it -- adults as well as kids -- and say, "Read it." It's one of those elemental, utterly artless works that simply stop you in your tracks.

In May 2001, Haski, a French journalist, visited Zhangjiashu, a Muslim village in a region of northwestern China so debilitated by drought that the government had declared it uninhabitable. Nevertheless, Haski dryly notes, about 3 million people still live there, in grinding poverty. As he was leaving, a woman handed him a letter and "three small brown notebooks." The letter, written on the back of a bean seed packet, was a cry of protest from the woman's daughter, Ma Yan, who had been told she would have to leave the school where she boarded during the week and stay home to work in the fields. The family could afford only her brothers' fees. Even though school was a grueling, dangerous 12 1/2-mile walk away, Ma Yan wrote in the letter that her mother's words were "like a death sentence." She was 14.

The notebooks contained a diary Ma Yan had kept between September and December 2000. The entries were brief and the tone matter-of-fact, yet they disclosed a life of extraordinary daily hardship and a seriousness of purpose that belied the writer's age. Here's the full entry for Sept. 8: "This morning during class, our Chinese teacher taught us that in life a man has to act according to two principles: his values and his dignity. This will ensure the respect of others. At the end of class he warned us to be careful on the road on our way home. Those who have money can get a lift on a tractor for one yuan [about 12 cents]. The rest of us have to walk. But we mustn't dawdle." Even allowing for the rote pieties and the likely loss of immediacy entailed in the double translation from Mandarin to French to English, this hardly sounds like a 13-year-old.

In between the hair-raising glimpses of privation -- Ma Yan doesn't even have a change of clothes and is often so hungry "I think I can see smoke coming out of my stomach" -- comes the refrain: School is the only way out. One Friday, she describes arriving home and being asked to haul bales of buckwheat. "I couldn't really walk any farther," she writes, "but Mother forced us to go." Ma Yan isn't angry at her mother, though: "How could we refuse her? She exhausts herself to provide food for us when there's nothing left, and then she exhausts herself all over again, without getting anything out of life for herself. She doesn't want us to live the way she does. That's why we have to study. We'll be happy. Unlike her."

On Sept. 24, "a nice day," Ma Yan notes sharply, "In the big cities, even going to the toilet requires being able to read."

Intrigued, Haski returned the next month to Zhangjiashu, where he found the cheerful, round-faced girl back in school after all. Her mother had taken a laboring job in the city to pay for it. Haski stayed in touch, and Ma Yan kept up her journal, the entries growing longer, more vivid, more self-aware, by the week. ("Her life is a fast and tough teacher," Haski comments.) In January 2002, a French newspaper published an extract. The response was immediate: Readers sent letters, money and gifts; the diary came out as a book; scholarships were set up. Ma Yan became a celebrity, even in China. Her family bought some sheep and a new television. Last year, she flew to Paris for a book fair, and she has a good chance of attending a university -- once an unimaginable dream.

Ma Yan's story is on track to end happily. That's not so clear for the larger story her diary illuminates. The book raises questions, even for younger readers. What about those school fees, for example? Wouldn't a communist country provide free, universal education? It turns out that it does -- in principle. In practice, most of the money goes to the cities, forcing rural schools to impose special fees to make up the shortfall. Corruption siphons off more funds. In March, officials said rural school fees would be eliminated this year as part of a wider push to reduce inequality between China's booming cities and backward hinterlands. But critics doubt the policy can be enforced.

On Nov. 22, 2001, 14-year-old Ma Yan wrote: "If you walk up to the high plateau to look down at [Zhangjiashu], all you can see is yellow barrenness, a dried-out terrain. It's not even a landscape. To tell the truth, there's nothing to see. Nor does the economy produce anything . . . . The situation has to change."

At the very least, her diary puts an unforgettable human face on the struggle. *

-- Elizabeth Ward

Ma Yan (right) in her dormitory