music in beauty and sorrow…an elegant memoir of life in China

little leap forward cover imageLittle Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing, by Guo Yue and Claire Farrow, illustrated by Helen Cann
published in 2008 by Barefoot Books; 125 pages

The poetry of language, music, cooking, friendship, love, and nature gleam like moonlight on snow in this gorgeous memoir of life in China during the Cultural Revolution. It’s the juxtaposition of breathtaking beauty and punishing uniformity that gives this story such power.

Author Guo Yue was born in 1958 in Beijing at the outset of the Great Famine which, over the next four years, would cause death by starvation to some 36 million people. His father, apparently, was one of them. When Yue was 8 years old, the Cultural Revolution exploded in China, crushing the thought, creativity, individuality, and life out of her people. Yue was grievously separated from family and friends during that time. As a musician — Guo Yue is a virtuoso performer of Chinese flutes — all of the beauty and grief of his childhood informs his music.

little leap forward illustration helen cann

This book is a fictionalized account of his childhood. Its sumptuous language carries us right into the courtyards and riverbanks and schoolrooms of Beijing, allowing us to experience that world through Yue’s captivating viewpoint. The sensory richness — of aromatic ginger, sweet birdsong, cucumbers like green jade — running throughout the whole account is extraordinary. There is liveliness and humor as well, and intriguing depictions of kite-making and kite-flying expeditions. Comparisons of the old ways of China, the new ways of China, and the harsh crashing in of the newest extremes of revolution, are sharply drawn. 

little leap forward illustration2 helen cann

Hovering just beyond the overt aspects of the memoir is a poignant yearning for freedom. That struggle is cast symbolically as Little Leap Forward wrestles with his conscience over a small songbird he’s caught, whose song has disappeared as she’s confined. It’s a motif that the youngest readers might not pick up, but which makes this book an excellent choice for readers who are older than you might think of as the target audience.

Helen Cann’s lovely, rich paintings perfectly complement this story. I love her work! Even the end papers are alluring, with Chinese kites gracefully dancing against a blue sky. Her detailed, visual references for the many foreign elements mentioned in the text are extremely helpful. 

little leap forward illustration3 helen cann

Several pages of photographs and biographical notes are included at the end. Read this aloud with ages 5 and up, but consider it as well for older readers, especially those with artistic souls or with an interest in China. Or read it for yourself. I very much enjoyed it.

P.S. You can hear Guo Yue play at this youtube link. Hauntingly beautiful.