Reading level: 6.1
Library recommendation: Middle school
Red Scarf Girl is a memoir chronicling Ji-Li’s life during Mao’s Cultural Revolution while she was twelve to fourteen years old. She lives a carefree, happy life until the Cultural Revolution where her family gains poor political status, her father is detained, her immediate and extended family is humiliated, and she must choose between having a bright future and siding with her counterrevolutionary parents.
While the Cultural Revolution is not new to me, Ji-Li’s memoir is still moving, educational, and distressing. It’s written so simply, perhaps for the purpose of targeting a younger audience, but the matter-of-fact way she tells her story has a great deal of impact. I think it’s important for all people, students included, to know the story of this time period, because these horrors keep repeating themselves.
What is most interesting to me, personally, about this time period is that despite all the atrocities and injustices happening to Ji-Li and her family, she doesn’t lose faith in the revolution or in Mao. In fact, in the epilogue, the now-adult Ji-Li explains that she was thoroughly brainwashed, causing her, and others, to justify what was happening. Above all else, what will stick with me from this story is the idea that humans can be so thoroughly awful to one another and that we must understand our history as much as possible so as to prevent it from happening again(or to continue happening, anyway).
I see many similarities between The Cultural Revolution and the years leading up to (and during) the Holocaust in the ways people were treated due to their background and values. Even if I cannot teach about 20th century China, I would encourage students to read Red Scarf Girl if I teach about the Holocaust.
Like I said, the language and writing is fairly simple, so it’s good for ELLs. There are evidently lots of resources for teaching Red Scarf Girl. As a whole-class read along, it would be an excellent middle-grade book to discuss this time period, family ties, resiliency, hope, fear, propaganda, injustice… I would recommend this memoir to readers who enjoy non-fiction, Chinese students interested in their history, and students who need a bit of a challenge and enjoy learning about history and the world. Vocabulary words specific to this time period are listed in the glossary in the back of the book.
Red Scarf Girl is my thirty-fourth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.