Proponents of the “bookless curriculum” pedagogy, ideologues from across the political spectrum, and desperate American teachers confronting alarming percentages of students with low reading levels, are perhaps some of the reasons for the diminishment of literature in education. Hopefully, the following selections will inspire those readers who love literature to assign even more literary works on East Asia and the World in their courses. A number of Digest readers have read some of the entries that follow. Re-reading a book after a few years, or even decades, virtually guarantees a fresh perspective on the work. Digest readers will hopefully discover other titles that offer intense engagement and stimulate new ways of considering the human experience. Reviews, and in some cases interviews with authors, as well as teaching resource essays, all focus upon plot, character, and the applicability of the work to educators and students.
Laurie Baker’s well-written review (volume 2, number 2, fall 1997) of Jung Chang’s 1992 novel Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China published by Doubleday Books profiles the experiences of three women and their families beginning in the late Qing and concluding after the Cultural Revolution. The book is literary non-fiction, has been translated into thirty-seven different languages, and a few years ago. had thirteen million readers. It is banned in the People’s Republic of China.
Richard Kim’s Lost Names (University of California Press, 1998, reprinted 2014) recounts the experiences of a small Korean boy and his family living in a small town the Japanese occupy during World War II. Professor Kim, in an interview with Kathleen-Woods Masalski (volume 4, number 2, fall 1999) makes this comment on his work: “All the characters and events described in the book are real but everything else is fiction.” The book is one of the most teachable novels ever published in EAA. In the same issue, interested readers will find essays by a middle school, high school, and university professor on how they use the book in their classes.
Yu Hua’s novel To Live (Anchor Books, 1993, reprinted 2003) has twice been featured in EAA, most recently because of its immense popularity, in Charles Newell’s review of the work (volume 24, number 1, spring 2019). The decades-long story follows a profligate son of a landowner who loses his fortune and family at the end of China’s World War II victory over Japan, and as a peasant experiences more tragedy through the Korean War, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. The famous Chinese film maker Zhang Yimou’s 1994 film adaptation helped make both the book and film internationally popular. Readers can access Karla Loveall’s film review that appeared in the winter 2003 issue (volume 8, number 3). In the same issue, readers especially interested in the author can access Helen Finken’s interview with Yu Hua and James Winship’s broader review of the novel.
Mary Connor is probably the most impactful educator about Korea in the US who focuses upon K-12 schools. The cofounder of the Korea Academy for Educators and former High School US History instructor does a fine job in a teaching resources essay (volume 26, number 1, spring 2021) describing Julie Lee’s 2020 novel from Holiday House Brother’s Keeper. Lee’s novel for young adults is based upon her own mother’s Korean War experiences and tells her story as a twelve-year old girl with her eight-year old brother fleeing authoritarian North Korea in search for peace and freedom. The book has won numerous honors including the 2020 Young Adult/Middle School NCTA Freeman Book Award.
John E. “Jack” Wills’s Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History (Princeton University Press, 1993, revised edition, 2012) is one of the best literary biographical works I’ve ever read. The author crafted the sixteen portraits using biographies as the center piece of a Chinese history survey course he developed for beginning University of Southern California undergraduates. The book was so popular it had a second printing with an afterward by the author. Read high school teacher Aaron Pickering’s review of Wills’s book (volume 20, number, fall 2015). Readers as enthusiastic as I am about the book are also invited to read Jack Wills’s superb teaching resources essay that also appears in the fall 2015 issue of EAA.
Kristin Stapleton, a historian of China and longtime EAA contributor, has an especially keen interest in using biographies and memoirs in her own classes. High School and undergraduate survey level instructors are especially encouraged to read her feature article “Fiction: A Passport to the Past” (volume 23, number 3, fall 2018). Reading Kristin’s review of Scott Tong’s 2017 memoir published by University of Chicago Press A Village with My Name: A Family History of China’s Opening to the World (volume 23, number 2, fall 2018) inspired me to read Tong’s memoir and subsequently make it the introduction to modern Chinese history in an NCTA seminar for high school teachers I coordinated.
Other Teaching Resource: The 2021 Freeman Book Award Winners
In the November 2021 EAA Digest, we featured The Freeman Book Awards, sponsored by The National Consortium for Teaching about Asia (NCTA), the Committee on Teaching about Asia (CTA) of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), and Asia for Educators (AFE) at Columbia University. The awards recognize quality books for children and young adults that contribute meaningfully to an understanding of East and Southeast Asia. Awards are given in two categories: Children and Young Adults on the countries of East and Southeast Asia.
Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh (Harper Collins) and Young Adult/High School Literature prizewinner Tsunami Girl by Julian Sedgwick, illustrated by Chie Kutsuwada (Guppy Books). Honorable mentions appropriate for middle school ages and above include While I was Away by Waka T. Brown (Quill Tree Books) and How Do You Live? by Genzaburō Yoshino, Translated by Bruno Navasky (Algonquin).
Digest subscribers who seek exemplary Asia literature for younger readers in middle and high school classes are encouraged to visit the links above from the NCTA website and learn more about these and other recognized titles.