Friday, June 27, 2008

Barefoot Books Leaps Forward

By Sally Lodge, Children's Bookshelf -- Publishers Weekly, 6/26/2008

Next month, picture book publisher Barefoot Books launches its Young Fiction Program with the publication of Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing, an illustrated novel. The book is based on Guo Yue’s experiences growing up in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution, as Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward policy dramatically altered life in China.

In keeping with Barefoot’s picture book list, the new fiction line will focus on stories that draw from various cultures and traditions, but which, as Barefoot’s co-founder and editor-in-chief Tessa Strickland puts it, “speak to our times.” Illustration will also play a prominent role in the fiction list. “We place a high value on art as well as story, and on the importance of the visual education of older children,” she says. “So the novels will be illustrated throughout in full color.”

Little Leap Forward, which features art by Helen Cann, is a collaboration by flautist Guo Yue and Clare Farrow, a freelance writer and journalist, who live in London with their two children. They also teamed up to write an adult book, Music, Food and Love, a memoir of Guo Yue’s life that was published in 2006 and is due out in paperback from Piatkus Books in December. Told through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy, Little Leap Forward describes how the descent of the Red Guards on Beijing during the summer of 1966 brought drastic changes to the life of this child, who had previously spent his days flying kites with his friends and playing his flute to his beloved bird.

Guo Yue.

“The book is based on characters and events from my childhood, especially on the relationships I had with my mother and sisters and my best friend and on everyday details,” says Guo Yue, “but it is fiction as well as fact. I guess you could say it’s a kind of poetic interpretation of actual experiences.”

Those memories are clearly indelible, and continue to affect his life 42 years after that summer. Guo Yue says that it is impossible to exaggerate the effect of the Cultural Revolution on his life and the lives of those close to him—especially his mother, who was branded a “counter-revolutionary” and sent to the countryside to perform hard labor for more than two years. “The Revolution’s darkness has stayed inside me, especially in my music,” Guo Yue says, “and it gave me the most profound belief in freedom. But the realization of what it meant came slowly to me as a child. For children of my age, the Revolution meant that we didn’t learn about the world, we only learned about Mao and communism. Poetry, literature, the music of Mozart, anything that was not revolutionary was banned from our lives.”

Clare Farrow.

Farrow, who praises Cann’s illustrations for their “colors, patterns and attention to authentic detail,” hopes that young readers of the novel will “first and foremost love the story and the characters,” but will also gain insight into the history of modern China. “Children are used to reading about Chinese emperors, but here are ordinary children trying to make sense of an extraordinary period of history,” she says.

Two additional novels in the Young Fiction Program are scheduled for 2009. According to Strickland, the line will be characterized by fiction that is “not just about escape but which broadens older children’s horizons, preparing them to engage with other cultures in an informed and open-minded way.” And she sees Little Leap Forward as a fitting debut title. “We couldn’t have wished for a better first project to convey the cultural and political importance of the arts in children’s lives.”

This mission is closely aligned to Guo Yue’s own thinking about the importance of bringing diverse experiences to children through literature. “As a child I saw piles of books being burned, including the old Chinese poetry books and Russian novels that my mother loved so much,” he recalls. “During the Revolution, when I was sent to work in the fields, I remember a handwritten and hand-stitched copy of Anna Karenina—a book that was then banned—passed around among my friends, to be read and discussed in secret. I think one of the greatest gifts you can give to children is the love of books and the ability to read freely, about the lives and thoughts of people all over the world.”

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