Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Colors of Freedom

For many years I spent the Fourth of July out on the sandbar of a northern Michigan lake, among hundreds of boats anchored in the growing darkness, navigation lights bobbing like lanterns.  When the fireworks began, spreading like giant flowers over our heads, I marveled at their beauty.  After the colorful display it was usually in silence or soft conversation our pontoon would make its way back down the river toward our cottage.  Then and now I feel so fortunate to be able to live in freedom.

On July 4th this year, as I was walking through the nooks and crannies of my favorite indie store in Petoskey, Michigan, McLean & Eakin,  a cover and title caught my eye.  Red Kite, Blue Kite (Disney Hyperion Books) written by Ji-li Jiang with illustrations by Greg Ruth.  Discovering upon reading the jacket flap the story was set in China during the Cultural Revolution, I knew I needed to read this book.  History tells us it was the Chinese who invented fireworks, the splendor enjoyed by many today in celebration of significant events.

I love to fly kites.

Young Tai Shan and his father, Baba, fly their kites from the roof of their home, the streets are much too crowded for the freedom needed by kites...and little boys. While the wind plays with their kites, Baba tells stories to Tai Shan making him feel as if he is floating with the blue and red darting diamonds.  The two are very close; all they have is each other.

Trouble comes in the form of people wearing red armbands, who take Baba away to work in a labor camp.  Tai Shan's world, as he knows it, is shattered.  He is removed from his home to live with an elderly woman named Granny Wang.

With a forest separating Tai Shan from his father at the camp, he adjusts to country life with Granny Wang, eagerly awaiting each weekend.  Baba is released on Sundays, walking for hours, for a visit with his son.  Their time together always ends with the flying of their red and blue kites on a nearby hill.

A day comes when even more sadness descends into Tai Shan's life.  Baba can no longer visit but he has a plan, a secret signal.  New larger kites, one red, one blue, flying high will tell their hearts what words no longer can.

Tai Shan is frantic when, for three days, his father's blue kite is not seen at the end of the day soaring in the distance.  Darker days loom for the father and his son but again the father's love gives the boy hope.  It's hope and red kites and blue kites which ultimately fill Tai Shan's heart and the sky above the village.

In an author's note on the book's final page, Ji-li Jiang explains the basis for this book; a family friend when young had an experience similar to Tai Shan's story.  Her pacing and word choice within the narrative closely parallel the act of kite flying as if moving along the currents of air, ups and downs duly noted.  Jiang uses several phrases, sentences, repeatedly to duplicate the joy father and son feel when sharing their kite flying, even though they are not always together.  Her realistic description of the frightening events, of the living conditions for both Tai Shan and Baba and of their deep love connects with readers.

From the opening jacket and cover readers are transported to another place in another time, waiting and watching with the young boy sitting on the rocky hillside.  Greg Ruth renders illustrations with graphite, sumi ink and watercolor across single and double page spreads, creating city and country vistas side by side close-ups of the characters' faces.  The shift in perspective elevates readers' commitment to the story; looking at the boy and his father flying kits from the roof in the distance moving in to see their faces together smiling, kite strings extended from their hands.

The color palette reflects the circumstances in which the two find themselves, a warm golden glow surrounding them during shared moments of contentment, shadowy shades of grays and greens when they are separated.  The use of line and color intensity make you feel as if the pictures could come to life, move on the page at any moment.  Readers are caught in the emotional bond between a father and his son during the happiness and sadness they share.  Some of my favorite illustrations are Baba holding Tai Shan, twirling him around in a circle, Baba squatting next to Tai Shan as each hold their kites, he explaining the secret signal to his son and the overwhelming joy on Tai Shan's face as he flies both kites.

Red Kite, Blue Kite written by Ji-li Jiang with artwork by Greg Ruth is an important book.  It brings a period in Chinese history to life through the portrayal of the close relationship between a son and his father and their love of kite flying.  This is the kind of book necessary to create understanding between people throughout the world.

Please follow the links embedded in the author's and illustrator's names to visit their official websites.


  1. I saw this book in a bookstore recently and I thought it was heartbreakingly lovely and effective. I just couldn't imagine reading it to my 7 year old. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  2. I completely agree Allison. The combination of text and artwork is beautiful and conveys exactly what it needs to tell us. I would definitely use this with older students. You are most welcome. Thank you for stopping and commenting.

  3. I am going to hunt for this one. Thanks for highlighting it!

    1. You're welcome, Crystal. I'll try to bring my copy to #nErDCampBC. It will be a pleasure to meet you.