That Da Chen’s Girl Under a Red Moon (Scholastic, Sept.) brings his family’s experiences during China’s Cultural Revolution into clear view for young readers is only fitting: it’s one of the first titles that Scholastic Press editorial director Lisa Sandell acquired for her Scholastic Focus imprint. She approached Chen at a Poets & Writers magazine annual gala several years ago. “After dinner,” says Chen, “Lisa came up and said, ‘Da, do you remember me? I’m starting a nonfiction children’s imprint. Would you write me a China book?’ ”
In Girl Under a Red Moon, Chen shines a light on his beloved and brave eldest sister, Sisi. He recounts their childhood set against the contrasting backdrops of a lush countryside and a violent and tumultuous period in Chinese history, the Cultural Revolution.
Chen remembers Sisi as “very smart and a very good student,” who, with seven years—and three other siblings—between them, became a mother figure to him. “I spent most of my time strapped to my sister’s back as she walked all of us through the village,” he recalls. One of their frequent missions was collecting manure for fertilizer.
As the Cultural Revolution took hold, Chen’s grandfather, a wealthy landlord, was forced at gunpoint to turn over his properties and was imprisoned in a labor camp. When he became too frail to work, Chen’s father took his place, enduring torture and humiliation at the hands of the Red Army. Chen says that the family became “pariahs because of politics, something I didn’t fully understand as a child. But I was acutely aware of the fact that I was not welcome in this village.”
The Chen family’s disgrace “descended very soon on my sister,” notes Chen. At age 13, Sisi was expelled from school and threatened with jail. She fled to an agricultural middle school in the mountains run by family friends—with her little brother in tow. “I begged to go with her because we were so close,” Chen says. “This book is about her escape.”
Chen was widely recognized for his debut book, the bestselling 2000 adult memoir, Colors of the Mountain, and has written several other adult and YA novels since. But writing this book, he says, was “very emotional, very close to me. It taught me something every day. This story is tragic, but the setting is so beautiful. I loved writing about that.”
Today, 8–9:30 a.m. Da Chen will speak at the Children’s Book & Author Breakfast, on the Main Stage.