Mei Li by Thomas Handforth

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My Caldecott challenge: Although these Caldecott winner and honor books are not, for the most part, books I’ve read aloud to my son, I still found them interesting. A few I had strong negative opinions of; they show that even books that earned the Caldecott award do become dated!

I think the 1939 Caldecott Winner, Mei Li by Thomas Handforth, shows how the ordinary can be extraordinary. In deceptively simple illustrations (etchings and lithographs), Handforth tells the story of a little girl in North China who searches for adventures in the Great Square in the city. It has its faults; most notably, it shows severe gender stereotyping.

In the beginning, the little girl is told repeatedly that there is nothing for “a little girl” to do in the city (I was noticing emphasis on the “little” and then I realized that in 1939, the emphasis was probably on the “girl”). And then “girls can’t be actors.” In the end, she thinks, “Surely no kingdom could be as nice as home,” and the kitchen god tells her that her kingdom will be at home.

Besides that, the Chinese traditions discussed may possibly be stereotypical or incorrect: I don’t know enough to say. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed the little tale, thinking about 1930s China before the revolution, and I liked the illustrations very much.

Reviewed on November 15, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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