Friday, October 3, 2014

Lights in the Windows

Lights in the Windows
by Maureen Crane Wartski, author of Yuri's Brush with Magic

Driving homeward at dusk last night, I watched lights flicker on in windows of the houses we passed. Those pale rectangles of light made me wonder—not for the first time—who lived in those houses and what stories they could tell.

Stories are with me always… the true stories of family and friends that I have heard through the years, the ones I make up to amuse the grandchildren, the ones I research and write. Stories are everywhere and none fascinate me more than the ones I will never hear.

Have you sat on a beach or walked in the street or lingered at a store in the mall and heard a snatch of conversation that floated by? A half sentence that caught your ear and made you wonder how it was finished? Those bits and pieces of talk are often the bag and baggage of a writer, and I find myself playing with the words and picturing the story. Yes, the cat was up a tree for five days and nights, and …? So the screen door to the porch was slashed when….? And what do I think happened when she came home and found…? Oh, indeed, there are stories waiting to be told.

Sometimes, the stories involve not just unfinished sentences but people we meet for just a little while before the river of life flows on and we drift apart. The beautiful elderly woman who watched American troops liberate Paris; the small, calm gentleman who explained, while we were sailing along the Yangtze River, that he had long ago been one of the protesters at China’s Tiananmen Square—their lives and mine intersected for just a little while, but I remember them and wonder how they are.

A long time ago, my eighth grade English teacher told me that I had a frightening imagination, and perhaps this is true. But, consider—everyone has memories and stories that will be inevitably lost if they are not told. And such rich stories they could be! I remember buying an old quilt once and learning—quite by chance—that the long-ago quilter was a poor farm wife who had seven children and who used scraps from her sewing basket to piece seven large quilts so that all could stay warm during the bleak winters. I also fondly recall a formidable old lady who whispered to me that, when she was young, she wrote a bright red dress and danced the hoochy-koochy on the table. There is also the story of my Uncle Harry and the old beggar.

“Long ago,” my uncle once told me, “my company was almost ready to collapse. We had no business and no ready money. We were,” he added, “existing on what you might call the smell of an oil rag. But that was when the beggar came to the office…”

My uncle’s secretary wanted to send the ragged man away, but Harry would not allow this. “He looked old and weak and hungry, so I gave him cash for food, and he thanked me and handed me a rather dirty print of the gods of fortune. He said it would bring me luck. And if you can believe it…” a dramatic pause… “the next day Mr. K. walked into the office.”

Mr. K. was to become my uncle’s financial backer and patron, his lifelong friend. The beggar’s print? I remember it well, for it was framed and hung behind Harry’s desk for years. I don’t know what happened to it, but that really doesn’t matter because I have the story.

We need to remember our stories. We need to record and tell them so that they can be like those lights glowing in the windows of houses we pass in the night.

At your knee I heard

Things that made me laugh or sigh…

Yes, I remember.

Maureen Crane Wartski is an award-winning author of 14 books for children. She has published with Random House, Signet Books, Scholastic, and Fawcett Crest, among others. Her young adult novel A Boat to Nowhere won a Bank Street Award. Her newest book, Yuri's Brush with Magic, is a Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist. Two of her titles were chosen for the California Department of Education's recommended reading list for multiculturalism in the middle grades.

Read Maureen's blog here: You can order a copy of Yuri's Brush with Magic here:, or ask your local librarian to order a copy.

A Tale of Two Cultures: Genre in Chinese Literature

Our former editorial intern Wendy Lu wrote this series on the reading culture in China.

A Tale of Two Cultures II: Genre in Chinese Literature by Wendy Lu:

The Chinese love lisi, or history.* More often than not, you will see that the books people hold in their hands while ambling down the street or wandering between shelves at the library are biographies of late rulers and other important figures, chronicles written about this dynasty or that era, or perhaps a photo journal of old relics and precious antiques that once belonged to families of lost names. Even children’s popular books are filled with stories about mighty emperors and their royal families living in the Forbidden Palace. In a country whose past dates back to over centuries ago, history is what grounds people and fuses that connection to their ancestry as well as to China herself.

That isn’t to say Chinese people don’t enjoy fiction as well. But while many television shows and novels are fictitious, they rely heavily on the setting and historical background of the era that the characters have been placed in. The back story of the characters and of the setting is a chief determinant of what goes on—the conflict—in those 28 episodes or 489 pages. Even as people are enjoying beautiful tales of family betrayal and war and incestuous romance and magic and rogue princesses in imaginative worlds, those imaginative worlds are based on the real world, either as it is or what it used to be.

Magic. In America today, we associate the word magic with glittering vampires, witches named Glinda, thin wands that shoot out colorful spells, dragons and other mythical creatures, green and gooey potions whose properties are either deadly or unknown, and Albus Dumbledore with his half-moon spectacles. While in China people definitely acknowledge those representations of magic, what first comes to mind is almost always wu da pian, another genre all its own that essentially means “kung fu” and is a major characteristic of Chinese culture.

Stories based on wu da pian are popular amongst all age groups, including youth. While numerous stories include martial arts and only martial arts, the kung fu that dominates the majority of wu da pian sagas incorporates elements of magic—that is, spells and enchantments activated through a link between the mind and body that are compelled by li, or energy. Flying, weaponry, and kung fu moves supplement this magic to create the genre wu da pian.

I remember babysitting two elementary school kids a couple weeks ago and taking part as the wounded victim in their wu da pian roleplay. They laid me, supposedly unconscious with fatal lacerations, on the ground and began yelling out a series of hypnotizing incantations and waving their hands—flat and positioned accordingly—in fixed patterns around my head. During one of the few moments in which I wasn’t fearing for my life in the hands of two kids who’d gone Kung Fu Panda on me, I realized they must be replicating a certain wu da pian series they’d read in a book or seen on television. Oh dear, I thought, I hope the victim in the actual series lives in the end.

In addition to wu da pian—and perhaps within the very genre itself, talking animals with human-like features, tall-tale legends, and fighting faeries that fly and travel via giant chess pieces (makes the magic carpet sound so obsolete, so ‘90’s, doesn’t it?) are also relatively popular in literature, especially children’s books. Stories that take place within the Forbidden Palace and feature princes and princesses and other members related to the Emperor are classic. And, of course, internationally acclaimed books such as Twilight and Harry Potter have also earned accolade and a capacious readership in China, and have played a large role in western globalization in China. However, Chinese literature is and always has been delineated by lisi and wu da pian and everything that ultimately defines China.

*Note: Getting to know the many locals here and learning what sort of literature attracts and resonates with them has been an enlightening journey and joy. When I say “the Chinese,” I am referring to many of the native citizens who live here, especially those I have come to know and befriend, but it is not to be assumed that my comments on “the Chinese” may not relate to “all Chinese.”