The diary of Princess Redbird, by Laurence Yep,  provides insight into a young girl living between two cultures. She is born to a traditional people of South China, and is living away from home, while being educated by the Chinese colonists.The story addresses the conflicts between her own people and warring parties within the area, as well as the tension between the traditional people and the colonists.

Along with some typically adolescent characteristics, Princess Redbird is portrayed as a clever military strategist, which is born out historically, as well as a wise leader and saviour of her people.

The features of the book I appreciated include;

  • the main character’s attitude of respect and honour toward her elders, in particular her desire to save face for an old warrior who is part of her escort.
  • her compassion toward her siblings.
  • the historical notes provided, particularly in a volume where the majority of main characters are fictional.
  • if you are using this book for educational purposes, rather than enjoyment alone, Scholastic have a discussion page listing student activities.

Aspects I found trying include;

  • the language. Several times the reader is subjected to the use of the word “some” to describe a singular noun, for example, “I am not some famous scholar like him”. There is something very grating about reading modern teenage vernacular in a book set in 531 A.D China.
  • it seems we are to have no relief from an environmentally moralistic message, even in our historical fiction. There are murmurings about the amount of forest that has been harvested, and an incident, which is several times referred back to, where the king is described as “before his time”, in decreeing that in order to preserve the kingfishers, the birds must no longer be hunted for their feathers, and only the fallen feathers are to be gathered. This is prompted by the concern for the other species which have already disappeared from the forest. This from the people who are still today hunting rare tigers for body parts, is a bit too much!
  • although the story picks up, the beginning of the book is slow going, and the justification for including historical facts in the diary of a young girl is a little trite.

Having read a another of this style of book recently (plagues and federation, the diary of Kitty Barnes), I am lead to wonder if using the diary format for writing is chosen because it is requires less rigorous application to produce something? Tried and true writers of children’s histfict such as Cynthia Harnett, Ronald Welch, Rosemary Sutcliffe and Hester Burton, all manage to include wondrous detail of historical relevance, without the story feeling educational, or being burdened by it. I can’t help but feel these are finer examples of the art, and question if modern educators would be quite so enamored of present day offerings if they had such pearls at their disposal?

Overall, the book has some merit, and there is nothing contained within that I would hesitate to set my 11 year old to read, though some parents of younger readers may not appreciate the beheading and some references to appeals to black magic for help in war.

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