Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: Jouanah A Hmong Cinderella

When I was looking for other types of Cinderella stories, I found out that there are almost 700 different versions!! I had no idea that there were so many! I took this opportunity to choose Cinderella stories from other cultures. This review is a Hmong Cinderella, but I also read about a Cambodian Cinderella (you can read the review for that in the next post.) I tried to pick cultures that I don't remember learning about when I was a child in school. Providing these cultural books helps students get a global perspective. Using a story that young children are already very familiar with, like Cinderella, helps children understand that other cultures are people just like us because they read the same stories we do. Also, of course, using multicultural literature in the classroom is a great way for English Language Learners to contribute to the class and identify with a character in the story. Reading a fairy tale from the perspective of the ELL's cultural background can give them the opportunity to teach their classmates about their culture. Older students or students with more English experience can use these books to address differences between the story's depiction of their culture and how they feel about it.

Jouanah: A Hmong Cinderella adapted by Jewell Reinhart Coburn with Tzexa Cherta Lee
Illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien

At the beginning of the book there is a Publisher's Note which gives some background on this story and this interpretation. This version is based on other Hmong Cinderella stories by past Hmong authors and the oral traditions of Tzexa Cherta Lee's family. They go into detail on how the name of the character was adapted for the American audience. The name Jouanah means a young orphan, male or female, as opposed to name that is known by the Hmong meaning a young female orphan. It also states that the illustrations are based on an article of clothing bought from Ban Vinai Camp, Thailand of the Blue Hmong clan. With this information, I believe this book will be an accurate representation of Hmong culture and the Hmong Cinderella story.

Jouanah grew up on a farm in a village in the land of the Hmong. Her parents decided they needed a cow in order to have the most fruitful harvest. Her mother asks to be turned into a cow in order to plow the land and make their harvest better. Her father makes this happen by taking "three vines and winding them three time around his wife's ankles, three times around her wrists, and three times around her head." She became a cow for the family to use and would be turned back to human after the season was over.

However, Jouanah's father was selfish and he did not turn his wife back into a human. He did care for her very well though. Instead, he took another wife. The new wife was upset that her husband cared for the cow more than her. When she found out that the cow was her husband's first wife, she concocted situations to eliminate her. The cow died of a broken heart after the new wife instructed the husband to burn all of the beautiful threads the cow was spinning for her daughter. Jouanah and her father were devastated.

A while later, Jouanah's father died and she became a servant for her stepmother and her stepsister, Ding. When there is a festival in town, the stepmother makes Jouanah stay at home and clean while she and Ding go to the festival. Jouanah finds a beautiful dress in her basket and blue slippers. She wears them to the festival and the son of the village Elder, Shee-Nang notices her. As in other Cinderella stories, she must leave to get home and loses her shoe. Shee-Nang makes a vow to find this mysterious girl with this lost shoe. He goes to every village until he gets to Jouanah's home where her stepmother insists Ding is the right girl. Shee-Nang and Jouanah's eyes meet and they leave right away to get married and have a new life together.

The illustrations in this book are by Anne Sibley O'Brien. She lived in Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand as a child because her parents were medical missionaries. The illustrations are very colorful and bright. The dress, that was modeled after an authentic Hmong dress, is beautifully portrayed. The images are framed on the pages and I think that was chosen for this book because it is a fairy tale and the reader is meant to be on the outside looking in at the characters. Above the box with the text, there is an oval with a smaller picture in it. These pictures are a highlight of something important that was mentioned in that section. When we get to the part of the story where Jouanah arrives at the festival, there is a two page spread to illustrate this pivotal part of the story. Everyone in the village turns to look at Jouanah but no one knows who she is in her beautiful dress and jewelry.

I thought this was a very interesting interpretation of this story. I was surprised by the magic in the culture that turned the mother into a cow. I think this is a very appropriate book to share with children in elementary and middle school to introduce Hmong culture to the classroom.
There is also a link to a free Teacher's Guide on the Publisher's website.

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