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Bronze and Sunflower

Bronze and Sunflower CoverGuest blogger Fang Jia jointly authored this week’s entry with Mary Ann. In China, Fang teaches Chinese language and literature. Currently, she studies Curriculum and Instruction at Boston College.

Bronze and Sunflower

Written by Cao Wenxuan, translated by Helen Wang, illustrated by Meilo So

Published by Candlewick Press, 2017

Originally published in Mandarin, 2005

ISBN: 978-0-7636-8816-5

Grades 4 – 8

Book Review

“I don’t agree that children’s literature is all about books that make children happy. Blind happiness can easily lead to superficiality, from which one may not be able to sense the depth of human life,” says Cao Wenxuan, author and winner of the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award. A popular Chinese children’s writer and notable professor of contemporary literature at Peking University, Cao emphasizes the importance of reading about hardships throughout his body of work. Many of Cao’s books feature characters navigating the complexities of poverty, the disconnect between cities and rural areas, intellectuals and farmers, and political superstructure and ordinary people. Bronze and Sunflower is set in the era of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1967-1977) when Sunflower’s father, an established sculptor from the city, is sent, along with many other intellectuals, to the rural Cadre School for “ideological reeducation.” They are expected to get rid of their bourgeois habits through heavy farm work. After her father dies accidentally, Sunflower is adopted by the poorest family in the nearby village and enveloped in love. The family, including her friend-turned-brother, Bronze, makes great sacrifices to feed, clothe, and educate Sunflower. Although the rural family experiences successive episodic difficulties, such as a plague of locust, a terrible wind storm, and famine, they bounce back with dignity, diligence, and determined love. This beautiful translation from the original Mandarin is filled with gorgeous imagery and abundant similes. Bronze and Sunflower does not have a simple happy ending, yet it may change children’s perspectives towards hardship and explores their flexibility to endure it. As the author shares, “people living in every era have their own kinds of sufferings. Hardships never belong exclusively to today’s youth. We cannot grow into a strong person unless we obtain an elegant spirit to deal with life sufferings.” According to Cao, misfortune can be a great fortune. Ideal for read aloud or for explorations in literature circles, Bronze and Sunflower offers readers a window into modern Chinese history as well as a rumination on the meaning of love, sacrifice, family, and community.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Objects and Symbolism. Bronze and Sunflower includes a series of interesting chapter titles: A Little Wooden Boat, Sunflower Fields, An Old Tree, Woven-Reed Shoes, Golden Thatch, An Ice Necklace, A Plague of Locust, A Paper Lantern, The Big Haystack. All of them are tangible objects. Ask students to make or draw a list of objects that form the  titles. In small groups, have them consider why the chapter was named for these specific objects and what these objects convey or symbolize. Guide students to make connections between the objects to the relationships between the family members.  As a follow-up, invite students to think about objects that represent relationships between their own family members. The activity can also be used as a speaking and writing prompt.

Rural Communities Text sets. As a work of historical fiction, Bronze and Sunflower recreates rural life in China forty years ago. How similar and different is that world from rural life in America today? Guide students to explore aspects of rural areas by reading contemporary novels set in the United States, such as Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez,  Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswanni, and As Brave as You by Jason Reynolds. If you live and teach in a rural area, in what ways do these books reflect your reality? If you live and teach in urban or suburban areas, ask students to share their personal experiences of visiting or staying in rural areas, describe their general impression or imagination of rural areas, and then see if these perceptions align with what is written in the books, and why.  Students can read about the beauty of Damaidi’s landscape and the good qualities of local people depicted in Bronze and Sunflower along with books with alternative viewpoints. Small groups of sharing and discussion can be held focusing not only on the natural environment, but also the social fabric and social problems.  In response to your readings, conduct a Skype session with a class in another part of the country that lives in a different location (rural, suburban, urban) to learn first-hand from other children. .

Experiencing the Cultural Revolution: Bronze and Sunflower and Little Green Duet. Have some students in class read Bronze and Sunflower, and others read the verse memoir  Little Green: Growing Up During the Chinese Cultural Revolution by Chun Yu. What do they learn about life during the Cultural Revolution from reading each book? What questions do they have about the specific events of that time period? Students can move from their book-based groups to jigsawed groups where they can share information with one another. After their readings and discussions, what new questions do they have about this time period in China’s history? Use the digital resources below to help round out their knowledge. Have students do research projects about the era and/or the place where the story take place. Students can discuss in groups about their new findings and present an artifact (i.e. a paper poster, digital video, photo collage, etc.) on this topic.

Language Arts: Symbolism. The book title, Bronze and Sunflower, has multiple layers of meanings. Bronze and Sunflower are statues made by the sculptor, the names of the children characters, and also the spirit of enduring hardships. Encourage students to reflect and discuss the question: Why the book is titled Bronze and Sunflower? Have students draw pictures of the two characters, Bronze and Sunflower. Next, have them draw pictures of the characters at various events within the story. How might the things that Bronze and Sunflower do influence what the title means?

Language Arts: Simile. When reading chapter by chapter, have students collect sentences with similes in their notebooks or graphic organizers. Have students copy down the similes they like and mark the tenor, the vehicle, and the indicator of resemblance (i.e. like, as) out with different colors. How are similes used to describe the natural landscape? Ask students to talk in pairs about their own living environments or places that they love the most or find most beautiful. Be sure to have pictures of urban and rural landscapes to share for those students who may not be able to think of a special place right away. Have students begin to describe their “place” with as much imagery as possible. Next, have them look at their writing and see where they can add appropriate similes to make it even more descriptive. In pairs, have students share their similes to verify if they “work” as gentle comparisons the way Cao’s do. Students can read aloud their favorite simile to the class, or you can have an official reading where all students share their short piece of descriptive writing.

Language Arts: Descriptive Writing. Have students choose the descriptive paragraph(s) they like best from the book and read out loud to their partners. Have one read aloud while the other draws a picture of what s/he/they hears. What details does the reader see in the drawing? What did the listener miss? Together, they can complete the picture to more specifically include the details from the text. Next, nask students to choose an object/person/scenery to describe. If time is allowed, the teacher can bring students to a park, a garden or a field and have them do some observation on specific targets, and then write their description.  Students can use the previous excepts they choose as mentor texts.

Global Text Set. What was happening in the United States during the period in which Bronze and Sunflower is set? Have students explore a text set that focuses on political or social events in around the globe from 1966-1977. Place students in book clubs reading the following fiction: Bronze and Sunflower,  One Crazy Summer, I Lived on Butterfly Hill, and Inside Out and Back Again. Have students track the challenges that each protagonist experiences. What are the causes of these challenges? How much comes from bigger circumstances than the child’s family or everyday life?  Periodically, place students in jigsawed groups where they can compare and contrast the events of the novel, and the challenges the protagonist faces. What are some of the differences in culture and politics in each of the novels? What are some of the similarities? What experiences do the characters share? Students can create life-size portraits of each of the characters on large paper, and then make connections across books using string.

Looking at Loss: Missing May and Bronze and Sunflower Duet. Cynthia Rylant’s Newbery Award-winning Missing May, like Bronze and Sunflower, features an only child who is orphaned and living in a rural setting. After reading Bronze and Sunflower with the whole class, pair it with a read aloud of Missing May. What do the students notice about the relationship between Summer and her Aunt May and Uncle Ob, and Sunflower and her father, and then her adopted parents and grandmother? What are the ways in which Summer and Sunflower are similar to one another? What is similar about their experiences, despite the differences in time, place, and culture? What are the ways in which small objects play important roles in each of the novels?

Exploring Sibling  Relationships. Both Bronze and Sunflower spend most of their childhood as only children, without siblings. Almost immediately upon meeting, they become friends, and soon become family. They are able to communicate and understand one another despite Bronze’s trauma-induced mutism. How is this relationship similar to and different from other fictional sibling relationships? How do they interact with parents and grandparents in ways that are similar to and different from one another? Explore the relationship within books that feature only children and sets of siblings, such as: As Brave as You, Rules, Sisters, The War that Changed My Life, and Becoming Naomi Leon. Have students compare and contrast these relationships with ones that they have experienced in their own lives, being mindful that for students without siblings this may be a sensitive topic.

Integrity. Ask your students what the word integrity means to them. Have them attempt to define it in small groups. How important is integrity to their reputation? Have this discussion just before they read the “Plague of Locusts” chapter in which Bronze’s integrity is challenged when the community members believe that he has stolen a duck from his antagonist, Gayu. When Bronze finds Gayu’s missing duck, he chooses to walk up and down every street in the village, to demonstrate that he never stole and cooked it.  What would students do in that situation? How important is their own sense of integrity? Is it enough to know you have done the right thing, or do you need to make sure your reputation is intact from other people’s perspectives  as well?  

Critical Literacy

Perspective Taking. Why is learning so important to Sunflower’s adopted family? They insist on sending Sunflower to school; Sunflower teaches Bronze, who has trauma-induced mutism, how to read and write.  Have students discuss in small groups about the costs of sending Sunflower to school. What are the sacrifices that each member of her family have made? Create a graphic organizer with columns of each family member (Nainai, Mama, Papa, Bronze, etc.). Ask the students whether those sacrifices were “fair.” What other options were available to them, and to others in the village? Is Sunflower’s leaving for school a happy event or a sad one? A gain or a loss for her? For the village? Divide students into groups, in which each group takes the perspective of a character in the book. What would they do at the end of the novel if they were in that person’s position (Sunflower, Bronze, their parents, the government administration, people live in Damaidi)? Why? Have the write in the first-person from that character’s point-of-view.

Sacrifices for Education. Not everyone has the same access to education in today’s world.  Do urban and rural students have guaranteed access to quality education today in the United States? In China? What differences do your students notice? What sacrifices do your students’ families make to ensure that they are educated? Explore some of the resources on schools listed below, and consider what educational inequity exists in China and rural America today. What can changes those inequities? You may want to have students explore contemporary and historic access to education in the following Classroom Bookshelf entries: Rain School, Malala: Brave Girl from Pakistan, Steamboat School, The First Step, and Separate is Never Equal.  

Sunflower’s Agency. Who has power in this story? To what extent does Sunflower control her own future? To what extent is Sunflower “acted upon?” Which adults have power, and when? When do the children have power?  Have your students examine gender dynamics within the story. When does Sunflower take action, and what impact does it have on her life and that of her family? When does Sunflower rely on others? How realistic is this? How unrealistic is this? Is Sunflower “too” good? Have your students debate this issue, drawing textual evidence to support their arguments.

Further Explorations

Digital Resources

“Little Sugarcoating in Cao Wenxuan’s Children’s Books,” The New York Times, May 2, 2016

Youtube Video produced and uploaded by New China TV : Cao Wenxuan on his writings, inspiration   

The Cultural Revolution, Scholastic-New York Times Upfront Magazine, November 2016

“A History of China,” Scholastic

“China’s Cultural Revolution, Explained,” The New York Times, May 2016

“What was China’s Cultural Revolution?”, BBC News

Chinese Posters on the Cultural Revolution Website

Encyclopædia Britannica-Cultural Revolution and May 7th Cadre

CNN Story: China’s ‘lost generation’ recall hardships of Cultural Revolution

NPR Interview: Newly Released Documents Detail Traumas Of China’s Cultural Revolution

NY Times report: China’s Education Gap, May 9, 2014

Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC): A Conversation about Rural America with the Undersecretary of the US Department of Agriculture for Rural Development, May 2016  

PBS News Hour: Are Rural Students Getting Shortchanged in the Digital Age?


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Alvarez, J. (2010). Return to sender. Yearling.

Bradley, K. B. (2015). The war that saved my life. Dial Books for Young Readers.

Gong, S. & Seligman, S. (2011). The Cultural Revolution cookbook, Earnshaw Books.

Goodman, S. (2016). The first step: How one girl put segregation on trial. Ill. by E.B. Lewis.  Bloomsbury.

Hopkinson, D. (2016). Steamboat school: Inspired by a True Story. Ill. by R. Hubbard. Disney Hyperion.

Lai, T. (2011) Inside out and back again. Harper Collins Publishing.

Reynolds, J. (2016). As brave as you. Simon and Schuster.

Rumford, J. (2010). Rain school. Houghton Mifflin.

Rylant, C. (1992). Missing May, Bantam Doubleday Dell Books.

Sterling, K. (2007). Living in rural communities, First Step Nonfiction.

Tonatiuh, D. (2014). Separate is never equal. Abrams Books for Young Readers.

Vaswani, N., and House, S. (2013). Same sun here, illustrated by Schenker, H. Candlewick Press.             

Williams-Garcia, R. (2010). One crazy summer. Amistad, Harper Collins Publishing.                                                          

Winterson, J. (2014). Malala: Brave girl from Pakistan/Iqbal: Brave boy from Pakistan. Beach Lane Books.

Xianlin, J. (2016). The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, New York Review Books; Main edition.

Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.