According to my records, I have read The Wizard of Oz 17 times. That’s a conservative estimate and doesn’t count the number of times I heard the book read aloud when I was a child. I have defended L. Frank Baum’s work from detractors who find it didactic or flat, and I have watched the eyes of more than 300 second-graders as they absorb the story of Dorothy and her adventures.
Grace Lin’s latest book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, is part Chinese legend, part Zen storytelling, part feminist-inspired folktale and many parts Oz. My list of “things that are just like Oz” includes: a girl on a journey for a magical being, a friend who needs help, a brick road, cliffhanger chapter endings, old-fashioned full-color illustrations and a dramatic tone. But, despite my long list, Lin’s adventure story reads like an homage to Oz rather than a story derived from it.
Our heroine, Minli, spends her family’s hard-earned money on a goldfish that is supposed to change their fortune. Ma is the keeper of the money, and she complains constantly about her family’s impoverished state. The stories of the talking goldfish inspire Minli to set out on a journey to Never-Ending Mountain, where she will ask the Old Man in the Moon for help.
Following the traditions of the hero myth, Lin portrays Minli as she travels far from home, carrying items that end up being important for her survival. She meets a magical and beloved dragon companion who helps her see what is really important. She meets and overcomes challenges and has to complete her mission alone. And, in the end, Minli learns what she is supposed to learn. Every character in the story changes and grows during the time that Minli is away.
My future second-graders are going to love Minli and her stories when I read this book to them next year. They will see the similarities to Oz, but that will only make the story better for them. Suspenseful without being scary, complex without being complicated, this spirited tale of self-discovery and fate has a little something for every reader.
Robin Smith shares Oz and other stories with her second-grade class in Nashville.