A Song For China: How My Father Wrote Yellow River Cantata

Groundwood. Sept. 2019. 80p. illus. maps. photos. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781773061511.
Gr 4-7–In early 1939, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, a suite of lyrical short poems by Guang Weiran (a celebrated pen name) was set to music by his friend Xian Xinghai. Guang’s artist son has created this stirring, streamlined account of his father’s life and work, centered on the cantata’s creation, with photographs and many of Zhang’s bold woodcut-like illustrations (enlivened by touches of crimson). A precocious student and writer, the 12-year-old Guang was moved to revolution by foreign abuses of the concession system. He became a Communist Party member (though abjuring allegiance during Nationalist suppression). Leading an anti-Japanese guerilla theater troupe, Guang crossed the Yellow River on his 25th birthday. The resulting cantata found instant success as an expression of love for the Mother River and the motherland—though banned during the Cultural Revolution, it was embraced again after it. All eight movements of the cantata, in a spirited English translation (by Andi Zhang) against fluid molten-gold river backdrops (contrasting with the more austere earlier illustrations), then the original Mandarin, follow Zhang’s concise but warm biographical narrative. The musical score does not appear. Young readers’ notions of communism may be enriched by the references here to its historical rise and the patriotism of those who fought for China.
VERDICT Succinct history, an inspiring personal story, clear language, and engaging artwork make this volume an appealing choice for middle school readers.

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