Reviewed by A. Rooney
In the tradition of other great storytellers, Ying Chang Compestine begins her tale, Runaway Rice Cake, with the introducer, "It all happened one Chinese New Year's Eve." Compestine then serves up more than just rice cakes; she gives young readers whimsy, adventure, magic, family fun, language, rhyme, a geography lesson, and an easy-to-handle moral to cap it off. All in the space of 30 beautifully illustrated pages. A father, mother, and three sons in old China are set to enjoy the Chinese New Year. The mother cooks them a special seasonal treat, a rice cake, with the remaining flour in the cupboard. When she pronounces it done, they stand ready to share it. But wait - the nian-gao (rice cake in Chinese) suddenly comes to life and bolts for the door. The boys, with mother and father in tow, chase it through farmyards, markets, a celebration, and the village center. The chase finally ends when the runaway rice cake bumps into a "grandmother," an old woman in the town. She has not eaten for days and Da, the youngest, offers to share the prize cake with her. In her hunger she accidentally devours the whole thing and embarrasses herself in the process. When the family arrives home, villagers have heard of their plight and are waiting with baked buns, dumplings, and oranges, and magically empty bowls are transformed into full ones of noodles, fish, vegetables, and rice. What makes this such a great story is that it arrives in layers: first the tale, then the magic and whimsy, then the language and geography, then the lesson. Young readers are innately curious about children and customs in other lands, but they want the information on kid level. Compestine's book delivers that along with a nice helping of fun. Because of the fun factor, Runaway Rice Cake will score high marks on the bedtime read-together scale. And if that isn't enough, there's a bonus at the end. In the final two pages, in a kind of addendum or epilogue, the author has included background and history of the Chinese New Year and a recipe for the holiday rice cake. A great story by an author who was a witness to China's unfortunate Cultural Revolution and can share a little of her country's 6,000 years of language and tradition. I look forward to her next offering.