For Kids

November 01, 1999 5 min read

Ties That Bind, Ties That Break, by Lensey Namioka. (Delacorte Press, $15.95; ages 12 and up.) The early 20th century saw the quick and brutal dismantling of the old order in China, with a democratic republic replacing imperial rule in 1912 and Western influence invading culture, literature, and politics. Though Namioka’s book is fiction, it offers a wonderful allegory of that turbulent era, with the themes of rebellion and freedom echoing throughout its pages.

The book’s protagonist, the strong-willed 4-year-old Ailin, serves as Namioka’s symbol of the restless Chinese people at the turn of the century. A mischievous and bright child, she has been betrothed in an arranged marriage to the 7-year-old son of the prominent Lius family. Her grandmother warns that in keeping with family tradition, “There will be no marriage unless your feet are bound! The Lius have very high standards, and they will not accept a daughter-in-law with feet like a peasant’s.”

When Ailin secretly discovers her sister’s horrifying experience with bound feet, she rebels, prompting a stormy confrontation with her mother. Eventually, her father intervenes and forbids the procedure. A forward-looking man who embraces China’s increased contact with the West, he per mits Ailin to attend a private missionary school for girls run by “Big Noses,” or white people.

Though Ailin thrives at the school, her stay there is cut short when her father dies and her uncle, the new head of the family, refuses to pay the tuition. Since her unbound feet make a well-bred marriage impossible, the uncle tells Ailin, now 12, that she can become one of three things: a nun, a farmer’s wife, or a concubine. “The choice is yours,” he says.

Ailin, however, rejects all three choices. With the help of her English teacher, she obtains a position as an amah (or governess) to the two children of American missionaries living in Nanjing. Her adjustment to Western life is difficult, but eventually she goes with the family to America and begins a new life. “I realized that I was like a bamboo shoot that had been outside in the air and sun,” she says. “I could never again be like my sisters and other delicate Chinese girls with bound feet who spent their days in an inner chamber. I was too tough now.”

Namioka’s tale offers a fasci nating glimpse into the life of a middle-class Chinese family at this pivotal time-its superstitions, traditions, daily routine, and schooling. But the book’s power comes from its portrait of Ailin, the brave, sometimes headstrong, young woman who embodies the spirit of these turbulent times.

An award-winning author who has written several children’s books on the immigrant experience--including Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear--Namioka was born in Beijing in 1929 and moved with her family to America in the late 1930s. She dedicates the book to the memory of her mother, Buwei, or Giant Step, who “was one of the earliest to have un bound feet.”

--Barbara Hiron

The Lost Boy And The Monster, by Craig Kee Strete, with illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. (Putnam, $15.99; grades K-2.) This gripping and somewhat gruesome picturebook combines the dark plot of an old-world fairytale with the illuminating wisdom of a Native American legend. It’s the story of an Indian boy lost so long he can’t even remember his name-and a monster that likes to eat children’s feet.

Old Foot Eater was so awful, Strete writes, “even the other monsters said so.” If this isn’t enough to send shivers down kids’ backs, Johnson and Fancher’s opening illustration certainly will: There’s the hideous fellow in his lair-a huge basket high in a hollow tree-surrounded by empty moccasins, the detritus of past meals. The monster, we soon learn, captures his victims with a long, sticky rope that dangles on the ground. When children wandered by and got stuck, Strete writes, “the monster did not call it an accident, he called it lunch.”

One day, the lost boy unknowingly walks by the monster’s tree, where he encounters a rattlesnake and then a scorpion. The two creatures fear that the boy will beat them with a stick, as most humans do, but he treats them with respect instead. Snakes and scorpions, he tells them, “belong in this world just like me.” For his kindness, they each give him a name: Snake Brother and Scorpion Brother.

As the boy turns to leave, he steps on the sticky rope and finds himself in the monster’s clutches. Things look bad. But while Old Foot Eater is away fetching water to tenderize the boy’s feet, the rattlesnake slinks up the tree and helps him escape. Once the boy is back on the ground, the scorpion hands him a “medicine bag” filled with poison from his sting and tells him that if danger appears, he is to throw the bag behind him and run. At that moment, the monster returns, and the scorpion’s medicine saves the day.

In the end, Old Foot Eater becomes helplessly ensnared in his own rope. As for the boy, “he never felt lost again,” Strete writes.

Although the story line and art offer some disturbing images that may give young children (and some adults) the willies, Strete lightens even the tensest moments with word play and humor. And while Johnson and Fancher give the monster a truly horrific countenance, their bold, full-spread paintings are bathed in yellows and other warm colors that signal from the beginning that the forces of darkness will not prevail here. Throughout, the boy has a gentle, serene appearance. Even in the clutches of the monster, he looks more surprised than scared, as if he can’t quite believe that his trust in the benevolent forces of nature has been betrayed.

The narrative and illustrations will hold youngsters spellbound, and they present opportunities for thought and discussion. How, for example, might the boy have become so lost that he cannot remember his name? And why does he no longer feel lost in the end? As for adults, the heap of empty shoes in the monster’s lair recalls grim images from the Holocaust, which may lead to more subtle interpretations of the story.

Deeper meanings aside, the writer and artists have created an original book about the power of friendship and the rewards of treating all living things with respect.

--Blake Hume Rodman