New Release Review: Bronze and Sunflower

Cao Wenxuan, Bronze and Sunflower (Candlewick, 2017)

A Chinese children’s classic finally comes to the English-speaking world with this gently absorbing tale of sorrow, friendship, and growth. Set in rural China during the Cultural Revolution, it centers on the relationship between Sunflower, a city girl who has come to the country with her artist father, and Bronze, a mute boy from the village whose family takes Sunflower in when tragedy strikes. Their immediate bond only grows stronger as it is tested by poverty, unsympathetic neighbors, and natural disasters.

With its depiction of rural life, from detailed descriptions of making shoes out of reeds to the terrible depredations of a plague of grasshoppers and the resulting famine, Bronze and Sunflower strongly reminded me of the Little House on the Prairie books, and should appeal to the same audience. Tradition and family loyalty are extremely important, foundational as they are in Chinese culture, but the love between Bronze and Sunflower goes beyond that. The mute boy and the orphaned girl show how the flower of true humanity can blossom in the unlikeliest of places, and though separation threatens at the end, what they have gained from one another cannot be destroyed.

The Communist regime is only obliquely referred to — Sunflower’s father was part of the “Cadre School” program of re-education that sent city folk to do hard manual labor in the countryside. The political significance of this is not dwelt upon, nor do the characters occupy themselves much with what is happening elsewhere in China, concerned as they are with merely surviving another winter. The themes and incidents are both specific to a certain time and place, and strongly archetypal, linked to eternal natural cycles of growth, harvest, and decay. For this reason, the book could be a good starting point for a broader study of China with older children, or can be experienced on its own with no special knowledge or background necessary.

Here is an interesting interview with the translator, Helen Wang, who won a major prize for her work on this book (which was only her second translation). Wang has done an excellent job of preserving some of the special character of Wenxuan’s leisurely prose while making it accessible for an English audience. I hope there will be more to come from both author and translator.


11 thoughts on “New Release Review: Bronze and Sunflower

    1. The Little House connection for me was the detailed picture of a rural upbringing. In some other ways it was very different — but that would take more time and thought to go into. If you’re interested in China at all I think it is definitely worth reading.


  1. Aw, this sounds wonderful! I wish I’d had it when I was a tot. I read the Little House books and liked them a lot, but going back and reading them now is a weird, uncomfortable experience, because I know a little more about the historical context the Ingalls were living through.


    1. Yes, exactly. They are an odd mixture of artistry (wonderful to read aloud) and unconscious bigotry. Still, what remains with me most strongly from my childhood reading are the descriptions of nature and of the human striving to build and create. Same thing here with Bronze and Sunflower.


  2. I love the sound of this. Especially because it makes me think of Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien – not the same book, of course, but the same time and place. But for kids. I’m going to have to look for this. Is there an estimated age range for it? I suspect my kids will feel too old for it. But I won’t!
    I wish there were more (widely available) translated books for children from other countries.


  3. I popped into a couple of bookshops today hoping they’d have this in stock (I’m impatient), but it looks like I’ll have to order it. I recently read ‘Journey to the River Sea’ by Eva Ibbotson which is aimed at the same age group and is really lovely. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I think it will be a great addition to the school library.


    1. I have been meaning to read Journey to the River Sea for ages! And I’m so glad you will add Bronze and Sunflower to the school library. Every school should have it.


    1. Indeed, I think it is sadly quite unusual to see middle grade translated fiction. There is so much more out there in the world than we are aware of.


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