Taking a step into children’s books about Mongolia

Renowned throughout the world as the founding head of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Genghis Khan’s legacy as “the first children’s writer” is perhaps generally less well-known. But the strong oral tradition in Mongolia means that many of his stories are still told today, and some can now also be read in English, thanks to a fine anthology of Mongolian Folktales published recently.

According to the National Library of Mongolia, at one time Mongolia’s “most popular slogan was ‘Everything for children’” and in 2003 the library opened its Book Palace for Children in Ulaanbaatar, which does indeed seem to provide everything in the way of books a young visitor to the Library could possibly desire. Meanwhile, author and publisher Dashdondog Jamba has spent his whole life ensuring that children in Mongolia have access to stories and the written word, taking his mobile library out to the remotest areas of the country, first by camel and oxen, more recently by truck. You can read his account of one of his journeys here.

Many children’s stories from and about Mongolia reflect its place in world history. The cultural heritage of those times remains strongly evident today, especially when you look beyond the urban areas towards the vast grassland steppe that consitutes most of Mongolia’s geography. This means that picture books with a contemoporary setting and the retellings of traditional stories merge to offer insight into each other that is relevant to today’s young readers, wherever they come from.

The list of books given below is not long, and I’m sure there are others to be found: but in the meantime, all of these are enriching and worth seeking out.

Picture books

Bolormaa Baasansuren, adapted by Helen Mixter,
My Little Roundhouse
Groundwood Books, 2009.

A delightful picture book, which brings the nomadic life of a Mongolian community to life through the eyes of one-year-old Jilu, who shares his experiences of all the roundness in his life, from the ger that is his home to the encircling love that enfolds him. There’s plenty here for young children to contrast and compare with in their own lives. My Little Roundhouse was selected as part of the 2010 Spirit of PaperTigers book set.

Marco Polo
Marshall Cavendish Children, 2008.

Marco Polo’s adventurous life is relayed through compact text and sumptuous illustrations bursting out of borders that reflect the rich patterns and brocades of the Silk Route. We read about his many years working under Kublai Khan and the sceptiscism of his fellow countrymen back in Venice. A beautifully depicted map shows the extent of his Travels.

Chingis Khan/Genghis Khan
Henty Holt and Company, 1991/Marshall Cavendish 2008.

Originally published as Chingis Khan in 1991, this classic title has recently been reissued as a Marshall Cavendish Classic with the slightly differently spelled title Genghis Khan.

A picture book biography of the great Mongol leader “based upon both historical resources and folklore”, this story pays particular attention to the events of Temujin’s childhood which moulded him into the charismatic conqueror and unifier he became as Genghis Khan. Demi’s signature use of gold comes into its own to depict both the wide, open grasslands of the steppe and the rich architecture of cities beseiged and conquered by Gengis. The last page holds a thought-provoking postscript to the story.

Ted and Betsy Lewin,
Horse Song: The Naadam of Mongolia
Lee & Low Books, 2008.

An exciting, exuberant story of the Lewins’ trip to Mongolia for the annual Naadam to watch one of the traditional horse-races in which the jockeys are children. Luminous, panoramic illustrations are interspersed with cartoon-like vignettes that will make readers chuckle aloud. The “Ger Facts” and “Other Mongolia Facts” at the end provide exactly the kind of information young readers will want to know.

Yuzo Otsuka, illustrated by Suekichi Akaba, translated by Richard McNamara and Peter Howlett,
Suho’s White Horse: A Mongolian Legend
RIC Publications, 2006.

Translated from the Japanese, where this story is now a classic, this beautiful, sad legend explains the origins of the morin khuur, the traditional Mongolian two-stringed instrument that always has a carved horse’s head. Suho enters a horse-race on his beloved white horse to win the hand of the local governor’s daughter. He wins, but when the governor realises that the winner is only a poor shepherd boy, he goes back on his word and tries to steal the horse… This tragic tale will raise passionate indignation in young readers, who will also love listening to Suho’s story related through the atmospheric playing of the morin khuur itself on the accompanying CD, perhaps while turning the pages to absorb the at times haunting illustrations.

Robert D. San Souci, illustrated by Jean & Mou-Sien Tseng,
Fa Mulan: The Story of a Woman Warrior
Hyperion, 1998/2000.

A retelling of the famous story of how Fa Mulan saved her family’s honor by disguising herself as a man to join the Khan’s army against the Tartars, and was so convincing that she became a respected general. An interesting Author’s Note discusses the sources and contemporary writings.

Laurence Yep, illustrated by Jean & Mou-Sien Tseng,
The Khan’s Daughter: A Mongolian Folktale
Scholastic 1997/2002.

A traditional story in which Möngke, a poor man’s son, seeks to win the hand of Borte, the powerful Khan’s daughter. The Khan’s wife sets the first two of three tests for him and then attempts to make it impossible for Möngke to succeed, but Borte helps him and sets the third task herself… This is a witty story with a surprising twist at the end. Yep’s retelling has plenty of vitality and the expressive illustrations provide geographical and cultural detail, as well as a lively portrayal of character.

For reading aloud and older readers

Retold by Dashdondog Jamba and Borolzoi Dashdondog, edited by Anne Pellowski,
Mongolian Folktales
World Folklore Series, Libraries Unlimited, 2009.

This collection contains a broad spectrum of more than sixty myths and folktales translated into well-honed English that just begs to be read aloud. Older children will enjoy reading the stories for themselves, and exploring the rich cultural background that the book also embraces.

Young Adult book

Dori Jones Yang,
Daughter of Xanadu
Delacorte Press, 2011.

A vivid portrayal of life under the Kubilai Khan told through the eyes of his (fictional) grand-daughter Emmajin, who longs, unusually, to become a soldier. A task set by her grandfather to extract information from the Venetian merchant Marco Polo leads to unexpected results as she scrutinises both her own and his culture and values. Full of adventure, well-written and absorbing, it’s hard to put this book down until you reach the end.

One Response to “Taking a step into children’s books about Mongolia”

  1. Sally Says:

    Awesome round-up of books, Marjorie! Love to get my hands on the folktale book.