Category Archives: Mongolian

Black Flame by Gerelchimeg Blackcrane, translated by Anna Holmwood

Black FlameWinner of China’s National Children’s Literature Award, Black Flame is an engrossing, often heartstring-pulling adventure told from the point of view of a majestic, lion-like, blue-black Tibetan Mastiff. Two things kept going through my head as the pages turned swiftly: 1. the novel reads like an older child’s version of Helen Manos’ gorgeous picture book, Samsara Dog, except all the incarnations belong to a single pooch with one life to live; and 2. no child should go through life without a special pet (yes, we’re finally welcoming a little hypoallergenic – achoos away! – kitty arriving home this month!).

Kelsang loses his mother as a puppy and grows up the playmate of his Master’s young son as he develops into an expert sheepherder. Two strangers appear one day, ply the Master with alcohol, and Kelsang finds himself taken away in chains to a city far from the grazing grasslands. He’s made to brutally battle other dogs, finds temporary respite with an old painter who feeds him but barely notices him, is sold again to a greedy dealer who keeps him chained waiting for the highest bidder. Kelsang discovers his great strength, unfortunately in horribly violent situations; he watches other dogs die, some even of broken hearts.

When he escapes once more, he happens upon two campers, one of whom is Han Ma, a kind young man who literally frees Kelsang from his chains of bondage. Han Ma proves to be the master Kelsang has been waiting for, but he will have to endure many more complications before the pair can be permanently united.

For those unfamiliar with this part of the world (like me), Black Flame offers ample opportunity to learn about lifestyles unique to nomadic highlands and crowded cities, not to mention the magnificence of mastiffs. That Kelsang must face so many obstacles before he’s finally granted contentment grows somewhat tedious before book’s end, but his utter devotion and unconditional love for Han Ma is impossible to ignore, and unforgettable to behold.

Having never seen a Tibetan Mastiff, I went looking for Google images and learned that the world’s most expensive dog is believed to be … what else, a Tibetan Mastiff (!), who at 11 months old sold for $1.5 million! That’s not a typo! If the three-foot-tall, 180-pound “Big Splash” is anything like loyal Kelsang, he’ll prove to be someone’s priceless treasure indeed.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2005 (China), 2013 (Canada, United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce, photography by Carl Hunter and Clare Heney

I know it says “Afterword” for a reason, but sometimes starting from the back of a book (must be an Asian thing!) feels just right. In this latest title from British author/screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (Millions – which was also a pretty good film – and Framed), the end is where you’ll find the story of how this book started … I will confess to the possibility of a spoiler, so continue at your own risk …

“A few years back …,” Boyce went on a school visit, walked into a classroom, and met a young girl named Misheel: “She was a refugee from Mongolia, and she just lit up the room.” As for her classmates, “Her presence massively enriched their lives.” Sadly, she did not last long in that primary school in small-town Bootle, England. “Maybe there is some complicated reason why a depopulated and culturally deprived area like Bootle shouldn’t be allowed generous and brilliant visitors,” Boyce questions. “I do know that a country that authorizes its functionaries to snatch children from their beds in the middle of the night can’t really be called civilized.”

And yet, “this isn’t Misheel’s story,” as Boyce intones. “It’s a made-up story.” Instead, Coat is a different tale entirely, about a pair of brothers, Chingis and Nergui, who arrive in the same Year Six class as Julie O’Connor. Actually, Nergui should be down the corridor in Miss Hoyle’s class, but never mind, he won’t leave his big brother’s side.

“‘In Mongolia,'” Chingis explains, “‘we are nomads. When we come to a new country, we need to find a Good Guide.'” And with that, he appoints Julie who readily, eagerly agrees to her new title. In between taking her Good Guide duties very seriously, Julie learns about the brothers’ homeland and culture, captured in grainy instant Polaroid pictures Chingis carries in the pockets of his signature coat. The brothers also need Julie’s help staying out of sight of “a certain demon,” who they are convinced has the power to make Nergui vanish …

Besides being a heartfelt story memorably told, Coat is also a gorgeously presented adventure. From the textured cloth cover to the notebook-lined pages (some showing a bit of creased wear-and-tear even), to the aging photographs with yellowing borders, Boyce’s collaboration with his longtime filmmaker buddies is a multi-layered, multi-media mini-production. Not to mention truly a case of quality over quantity. Unforgettable indeed!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, British, Mongolian

The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses by Shirin Yim Bridges, illustrated by Albert Nguyen

Hatshepsut of Egypt
Artemisia of Caria
Sorghaghtani of Mongolia
Qutlugh Terkan Khatun of Kirman
Isabella of Castile
Nur Jahan of India

Happy birthday to the world’s most famous queen (still!) who turns 85 today, making her son the oldest prince-waiting-to-be-king in British history. Next week, on April 29, Queen E2 will be welcoming another princess into the family when Prince William makes a royal of Kate Middleton.

Let’s hope Princess Kate has some good role models as she figures out her impending future … someone in the royal inner circle might do well to share this refreshing Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses with her! In addition to that fabulous title – no fluffy, wait-for-my-Prince-Charming, shrinking pink Disney princesses here! – this historic series covers the lives of six exceptional, independent women. Girl power all the way!

Written by award-winning Shirin Yim Bridges, illustrated by Albert Nguyen using a mixture of photographs, maps, period art reproductions, and original paintings, each of the six titles tells not only the story of a historically important woman-in-charge. but offers a pronunciation guide, a map of where she lived and ruled, as well as contextual information as to what she ate and what she probably wore. Presented in a chatty, contemporary tone to engage today’s younger readers, the series makes these seemingly faraway stories both timely and entertaining.

Move over King Tut and pay homage to Hatshepsut, Egypt’s first woman Pharaoh, who ruled (dressed in Pharoah drag with breasts bared!) for 22 flourishing years. Artemisia defied all gender conventions in ancient Greece and commanded great warships as an admiral. Sorghaghtani was instrumental in uniting and growing the vast empire claimed by her father-in-law, the great Genghis Khan.

Qutlugh Terkan Khatun survived numerous husbands, the last one who left her a Persian kingdom she ruled with renowned wisdom and justice. Isabella (a distant ancestor of our birthday royal … she was Henry VIII’s mother-in-law temporarily while he was married to her daughter Catherine) ruled equally with her King Ferdinand, and not only united Spain but also underwrote that fateful three-ship expedition led by Christopher Columbus. And Nur Jahan (whose niece would be memorialized forever in the Taj Mahal) ruled the Moghul Empire, all the while helping to better the lives of women!

Each book stands alone, but the six together pack a historical girl-power punch. A few minor quibbles: a bibliography or some sort of reference section would have been enriching, photo and art captions would have been appreciated, and some of the reproduced works seem graphically inappropriate for such young readers (eek! two men sawing a prisoner in half from the head down, complete with splattering blood!). And I did wonder why a few of our thinking princesses were so pale: if Artemisia was from what is now southwest Turkey, would she have been so blond and fair-skinned? What about a rather pink Hatshepsut in Egypt many millennia before sunblock? Hmmmm …

If the pictures seems a bit washed out, the writing thankfully is not. Bridges is sure to add the bad and ugly, as needed. Hatshepsut’s post-death mystery, Artemisia’s brutal war tactics, the horrors of Isabella’s Spanish Inquisition, and Nur Jahan’s behind-the-screens political machinations are all included.

Strength and accomplishment certainly came with high prices! Without turning a blind eye, Bridges shows history is filled with inspiring feminist lessons … and not just for princesses, either!

Next up: The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames forthcoming in Fall 2011! Stay tuned!

Tidbit: Back when my teen daughter was a be-bopping little toddler, her favorite song was “Cinderella” – no, no, no, it’s NOT what you’re expecting. If The Thinking Girls ever needed a soundtrack, they’d do well with this one. I was just recalling how great the lyrics were, and this link landed in my inbox for which I am SOOO gleefully thankful: .

Readers: Children, Middle Grade

Published: 2010


Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, .Biography, Chinese American, Egyptian, European, Indian, Mongolian, Persian, Turkish

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

Hurray (itself a word of Mongol origin) for cultural anthropologist and Macalester College professor Jack Weatherford who reclaims Genghis Khan from a much maligned history that defines him as “the quintessential barbarian,” leading an army of “savage hordes lusting after gold, women, and blood.”

Instead, with absolutely meticulous research – including years of extensive travel through thousands of miles of what was once Mongol territory, close collaborations with archeologists and political scientists, and access to the secret coded text of the original Mongolian documents, the so-called Secret History of the Mongols [click here for a full English translation] – Weatherford presents, if not the greatest ruler the world has ever seen, then certainly the ruler who had the most lasting legacy in creating the modern world. Genghis Khan conquered “more than twice as much as any other man in history” – between 11 to 12 million contiguous square miles, some 30 countries (on today’s modern map) with included over three billion people. His own Mongol tribe numbered a mere million, “smaller than the workforce of some modern corporations,” and his elite army of 100,000 warriors was “a group that could comfortably fit into the larger sports stadiums of the modern era.”

“In American terms,” Weatherford wryly clarifies in his “Introduction,” the accomplishment of Genghis Khan might be understood if the United States, instead of being created by a group of educated merchants or wealthy planters, had been founded by one of its illiterate slaves, who, by the sheer force of personality, charisma, and determination, liberated America from foreign rule, united the people, created an alphabet, wrote the constitution, established universal religious freedom, invented a new system of warfare, marched an army from Canada to Brazil, and opened roads of commerce in a free-trade zone that stretched across the continents.”

Indeed, today’s leaders would do well studying the life and practices eight centuries past of the great Khan: he also abolished torture, built a governing system based on merit, loyalty, and achievement rather than social privilege by birth, and attempted to institute a single international law. Even as the Mongol Empire eventually collapsed, Genghis Khan’s descendants continued to rule various parts for centuries, with titles that range from emperor, king, shah, and even the Dalai Lama.

Although Genghis Khan dies (or as the Mongols describe death as “‘ascended into heaven'”) halfway through the book, Weatherford follows Genghis Khan’s immeasurable legacy all the way through the 20th century. The journey is by turns entertaining and aggravating, but always enlightening, filled with countless ‘aha’ moments such as Chaucer’s awe and devotion to Genghis Khan as immortalized in the longest chapter of The Canterbury Tales, the origins of the medical term “Mongoloid” for mentally challenged babies who were proof that “one of the child’s ancestors had been raped by a Mongol warrior,” the roots of the China/Tibet animosity, and the creation of the first global society centuries before the internet made us instant neighbors throughout the world.

While Modern World is a resounding historical reclamation of Genghis Khan and his legacy, it’s simply also an epic story incredibly well-told. Set aside those dry history tomes … let Weatherford take you on this unforgettable adventure across continents and centuries … to read is to believe.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2004


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Biography, .Nonfiction, Mongolian

Kubla Khan: The Emperor of Everything by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Robert Byrd

Let’s start with the last pages first: Kathleen Krull notes in her “Author’s Note” that “[i]nformation about Kubla Khan is sketchy.” Her illustrator Robert Byrd adds that “[p]ictoral references dealing with the Mongol empire are limited and problematic.”

With so few sources, Krull and Byrd have managed to create a remarkably believable record of a man who “may be the least known, most mysterious of history’s great leaders.” Their story is told so convincingly, that closing their kiddie book happens with a definite sense of satisfaction, mixed with a piqued interest in learning more. Serendipitously, I happen to also be alternatively reading/listening to Jack Weatherford’s nonfiction adult title about Kubla Khan’s grandfather, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, and the two titles do make quite an enlightening pair.

But back to the esteemed grandson …

Kubla Khan’s 13th-century Mongol Empire included Russia, Korea, Tibet, and chunks of the Middle East. “Kubla Khan didn’t know about the Americas, or he might have figured out a way to conquer them as well,” Krull suggests. He succeeded his legendary grandfather, Ghenghis Khan, who united the warring Mongol tribes by 1206; Kubla continued to grow “the world’s largest empire” when he became Khan in 1260. His success would not have been possible without careful planning by his mother, “a woman nobody messed with.” His second wife, too, was an influential advisor, even bold enough to yell at Kubla when she see fit.

What little remains of Mongol history remembers Kubla as an “unusually fair” ruler. He was tolerant of other religions (holy moly!), championed the arts without censorship, promoted literacy, and even ushered in “a golden age for Chinese theater.” He supported the sciences, advanced agriculture, standarized paper money, and tried to give every boy an education (he would have done better to educate the girls, ahem!)

He also seems to have been quite the glutton with lavish palaces (yes, he built the incomparable Xanadu) and a penchant for bacchanalian parties. He had multiple wives, countless concubines, over a hundred children, and 12,000 bodyguards. He’s also the great Khan that welcomed Marco Polo, sparking a whole new cultural exchange.

Even if a fraction of these tall tales are true, Kubla Khan would still be a legendary ruler. History is rather relative, and not always reliable … but as good stories go, the Khan’s life told by Krull and Byrd certainly makes for memorable, fascinating kiddie literature.

Readers: Children

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Biography, .Nonfiction, Mongolian

Animals Marco Polo Saw: An Adventure on the Silk Road by Sandra Markle, illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini

Animals Marco Polo SawMarco Polo sure got around in his time, way back in the 13th century! And what a great way to show our instant-access, Web-addicted kids just how incredible the Polo family’s adventures were – for any generation!

The latest in Chronicle Books‘ (that great indie San Francisco-based publisher that always has the best booths at those book fairs) “Explorer Series,” Marco Polo’s story begins with his family who were Italian merchants specializing in the trade of rare silks and spices. When Marco was still a young boy, his father Niccolò and uncle Maffeo left for a buying trip to Cathay, now China, and didn’t return until Marco was 15.

War had delayed their return, but the Polo brothers had the chance to visit Kublai Khan, the legendary ruler of Cathay, who sent the brothers back with a request that the Catholic Pope send a hundred priests to teach his people about Christianity. Imagine if that request had actually succeeded … history may well need to be completely re-written.

But the Polo brothers, this time with a 17-year-old Marco, began their return to the Khan’s court with just two friars. Another war frightened the friars away, but the Polo men ventured on. From Jerusalem through Turkey, to Armenia to the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, and across the Silk Road, the Polo men took three years to reach the Khan’s magnificent vacation palace at Changde where they would work for the Khan for 17 years. Marco proved especially adept at different languages and the Khan sent him throughout his vast empire as his official representative.

When the Khan refused to release the Polo men to return home, they eventually escaped after escorting a Mongol princess to her betrothed in Persia. Their journey is not without peril, and they arrived in Venice in 1295 in tatters, although their rags had enough jewels sewn into the seams to make the family wealthy.

Three years later, as Marco sat in jail as a battle prisoner, he shared his many stories with fellow captives. People started writing down his tales, and copying them over and over again to share – Gutenberg wasn’t even born yet! – until Marco’s stories went viral, 13th-century style. Today, that book is called The Travels of Marco Polo, and was the world’s first travel guide!

The book is a gorgeous, engaging adventure story indeed, especially thanks to breathtaking pictures by Terrazzini (who also did the even more visually spectacular The Seeing Stick). And what about the animals that appear on the bottom of each page? The “Note to Parents and Teachers” at title’s beginning explains, “Kids will investigate why and how the explorers made their journeys and learn about animals they discovered along the way. They’ll find out how some animals affected the outcome of the journey: helping explorers find their way, causing key events to happen, or helping the explorers survive.” Indeed, what a clever way to show the symbiotic relationship between animals and humans – and, in many instances, a necessary reminder of our everlasting debt to all the horses, yaks, elephants, and other beasts we burdened throughout the centuries in the name of our own survival.

Readers: Children, Middle Grade

Published: 2009


Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, Chinese, European, Mongolian

The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag, translated by Katharina Rout

blue-skyFar atop the High Altai Mountains in western Mongolia is an unpredictable climate of extremes – breathtaking in its warmer beauty, yet unforgiving in the harshness of its frigid months. Unknown to most Westerners, the Republic of Tuva and its nomadic inhabitants have endured a long history of occupation, caught at the blurred intersection of the Russian, Chinese, and Kazakhstani borders, entangled in a mesh of incompatible cultures, past and present.

Amid this fraught landscape, Galsan Tschinag’s autobiographical novel, The Blue Sky, opens with a disturbing dream: “This story may have begun in a dream. Was it a preparation for things to come, a warning perhaps? For it was a bad dream — a nightmare.” But the young protagonist is unaware that he should not voice his nightmare: “Don’t tell your dream to anybody, tell it to a hole in the ground, and spit three times.” He innocently shares his anguish with his mother between great sobs, and thus seals his unhappy fate.  …[click here for more]

Review: San Francisco Chronicle, November 24, 2006

“Windows: Asian Literature in Translation: New & Notable Books,” The Bloomsbury Review, September/October 2007

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2006

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, .Translation, Mongolian, Tuvan

The Khan’s Daughter: A Mongolian Folktale by Laurence Yep, illustrated by Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng

Khan's DaughterLively tale of a poor man’s son who wins the hand of the Khan’s daughter through pure luck, faith, and eventually humility, in spite of demons, enemy armies, a mysterious warrior, and of course, the toughest of them all – the future mother-in-law.

Review“New and Notable Children’s Books,” AsianWeek, July 18, 2002

Tidbit: Yep was a guest at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program’s literary event, “Three Chinese American Children’s Book Authors,” on November 6, 2005, together with Belle Yang. Da Chen had also been scheduled to attend – hence the three authors, ahem – but had to cancel at the last minute, alas.

Readers: Children

Published: 1997, 2002 (paperback re-release)

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Chinese, Chinese American, Mongolian

Travels in Manchuria and Mongolia: A Feminist Poet from Japan Encounters Prewar China by Yosano Akiko, translated by Joshua A. Fogel

Travels in Manchuria and MongoliaEarly 20th-century Japanese feminist poet’s memorable road trip east. You go, girl!

Review: “New and Notable,” aMagazine: Inside Asian America, February/March 2002

Readers: Adult

Published: 2001 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Translation, Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian