“Bronze’s family was like an old cart that has rolled for years along bumpy roads and through wind and rain. The axles need grease, the wheels need fixing, the parts seem a bit loose and the cart creaks forward, as though everything is a big effort. But it still works, and it still gets to where it needs to go on time.
“With Sunflower on board, the cart seemed even heavier.”
This passage encapsulates, but only begins to define, Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan. Cao (the author’s family name, pronounced Tsao) is China’s first winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award, often called the Nobel Prize for children’s literature.
The Andersen Award is conferred by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), founded after World War II by the visionary Jella Lepman—who believed that children reading the world’s stories would seed international understanding.
Accolades for Bronze and Sunflower are many: starred reviews in Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly; New York Times and Wall Street Journal coverage; a Freeman Book Award. It would have been a contender for the ALSC Batchelder Award if published in the U.S. a year later.* In the U.K., it earned a Marsh Award for translator Helen Wang, and it began its anglophone life with a coveted English PEN Award, backed by Arts Council England.
Yet the Andersen Award seems especially right for Cao and this book, as IBBY’s focus on internationalism fits what Bronze and Sunflower does: open the reader’s heart to a mute, unschooled boy in China who spends most of each day guiding a water buffalo. This book also breaks the heart, mercilessly as the scythe of the boy’s father, reaping cogongrass to thatch a roof before winter comes. This book transforms the heart, as the boy’s grandmother twists raw grass into shiny rope, making it flow “through her hands like water” for the family. And the book heals the heart, as the boy’s mother makes a bed for an orphaned girl whom the family welcomes.
Bronze and Sunflower is about family—specifically, a rural family in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The boy, Bronze, and the girl, Sunflower, whose names form the title, are two in a five-member (six if you count the buffalo), three-generation body that somehow lives through fire, gale, locust plague and famine at the height of the Cultural Revolution.
There is a sense of destiny to this family: the boy’s name is the medium the girl’s biological father used to sculpt art in the city, before being sent to a Cadre School in the country. The girl’s name is that of her father’s favorite artistic subject, the sunflower. The early portions of the book show an affinity forming between Bronze and Sunflower, with her father’s knowledge, suggesting that he would have blessed her adoption by Bronze’s family.
And yet her new family’s survival is by no means assured—indeed, her arrival makes it more precarious—as public policy and nature challenge them at every turn. This book harks in form and feel to the Little House on the Prairie series, All-of-a-Kind Family, and even The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, but the juxtaposition of its time in history (decades after All-of-a-Kind) with the family’s living conditions (Little House-like, or more primitive) shows the reality of economic inequality in our world. Without preaching to Americans—it was written for Chinese—the novel cuts the web of insularity that U.S. kidlit can weave around readers, and it urges looking out.
All while making us adore its characters. Rereading Bronze and Sunflower for this post, I longed to embrace the grandmother, who resews the mother’s dress in a way my Kansas grandma would have done, and who stands between the father and the children when, in shock after ducks eat the arrowhead corms in their field—a critical income source—he loses his temper. In impossible times, this family keeps themselves. They are human and flawed, but they bring out the best in each other, which in turn summons angels in us. I literally slowed down more for pedestrians and stepped aside for an ant while reviewing it.
Bronze and Sunflower is an empathy engine.
Every child in the world deserves this book!
Bronze and Sunflower
By Cao Wenxuan
Illustrated by Meilo So
Translated from the Chinese by Helen Wang
2017, Candlewick Press
- Interview with translator Helen Wang in Words & Pictures
- Review of Bronze and Sunflower by Elizabeth Bird in School Library Journal
- Teacher Vision Bronze and Sunflower Teaching Guide (Grades 4-7)
*The ALSC Batchelder Award criteria changed in 2018 to (among other things) make children’s books first published in English translation in other countries, and subsequently published in the U.S., eligible for consideration. Bronze and Sunflower was released in the U.K. by Walker Books in 2015 and Stateside by Candlewick Press in 2017.