CALDECOTT MEDAL WINNER – 1939
New York: Doubleday, 1938
for ages 3 +
Interests: China, family life, sibling issues
A day in the life of a small Chinese girl who tags along with her brother to the New Year’s Fair in the big city. Her family isn’t keen on a girl going to the festivities but Mei Li is a determined and clever character. Not only does she tag along with her brother, but she attempts at every turn to prove that she is brave and useful. The story structure is rambly, merely noting all the events of her day as they happen, but the narrative always keeps us in touch with the feelings of this loveable character.
As any younger sibling, she is embarrassed when her brother laughs at her:
“What can a girl do at the Fair?” scoffed San Yu.
This just fires Mei Li up, and she grows ever more determined to do courageous things… even to the point of dancing on the back of a prancing circus pony, and teaching tricks to a performing bear!
Mei Li spends her little fortune of lucky pennies and marbles on the various wonders of the fair, and then rides home with her uncle on a camel, racing to get through the city gates before they close at nightfall. Thanks to a favour returned by the beggar girl they make it home in time to meet the Kitchen God and Mei Li is told she is the ruler of the household! In a truly charming ending she reflects happily that
It will have to do for a while, anyway.
The author and illustrator lived in the Chinese city of Peiping in the 1930s, and the sights and sounds of the fair are convincingly realistic. There are large black and white illustrations on every page and the story flows along with great excitement. The book jacket blurb speaks of a growing interest in China among Americans in the 1930s and no doubt this book was a great novelty at the time. Now it is equally valuable, if not more so, since the passage of time now lends it historical interest as well.
The story is not heavy-handed or moralistic. It is greatly buoyed by the fascinating details of Chinese life and of the fair, but its real strength lies in the colourful and complex character of Mei Li herself. Mei Li, with the perky ‘candle-top pigtail’ on top of her head, is a youngest child and a girl too, well accustomed to being underestimated, but she counters this with courage, pride, bravado and stubborn determination. She is kind enough to give a precious penny to a beggar girl. She is impulsive enough to spend a penny on firecrackers, although she’s too frightened to set them off herself – she hides while her brother lights them. And she is not above a little vanity when she is told, as she has probably suspected all along, that she is royalty. The situation and events of the story – from a close encounter with a performing bear to a ride home on a camel – will be foreign to today’s children but the endearing character of Mei Li, and her emotions throughout her adventures manage to ground the story in the familiar.
For anyone who loves tales of foreign countries and foreign customs. Also a nice story for girls, exploring themes of having to prove oneself and being adventurous.