asian-american, climate collapse, culture, family, food

Spotlight: The Planet in a Pickle Jar/Hundred Years of Happiness

The Planet in a Pickle Jar (Flying Eye Books)
Written & Illustrated by Martin Stanev

For ages: 4-8
Two siblings visit Grandma’s house with not much expectation for fun. She’s a boring old lady to them. However, as they wander around her home, they discover a big secret. They learn that Grandma is worried that Earth is losing its life and stories. To remedy this, she’s amassed a collection of jars in her basement. Each jar is something of the planet she hopes to preserve, and each jar is also a story about a moment in her life and the planet’s. This inspires the children to want to preserve their stories, too, and they embark on a fun adventure with Grandma.

Writer-illustrator Martin Stanev has given us a beautiful magic-realist tale for kids, a meditation on the impossible but something we wish was possible. The illustrations are sumptuous, full of the sort of detail that demands multiple readings, time to pour over every corner. When the planet’s future is in ever-increasing peril, these stories provide our children with ways to endure. Unfortunately, it’s uncertain and increasingly unlikely that humanity will reverse the damage it has done. Still, preserving what is most important for our souls is possible. 

Activities

1. This book is about making assumptions about people and proving them wrong. Have every student write down a fact about themselves that the class doesn’t know. Good examples are talents, hobbies, and interests outside of school. Share one fact at a time and see if your class knows each other well. This could spark some new friendships.

2. Have each student draw what would be contained inside their jar, complete with labels. Lots of detail and color should be encouraged. Time to share their jars will also help create good questioning and conversation among students.

3. This will be easier with parents & kids than in a larger school setting, but starting a jar collection like Grandma is a great activity that extends the learning for years to come. This can also be used as a platform to journal, using the jars as inspiration for writing.


Hundred Years of Happiness (HarperCollins)
Written by Thanhhà Lai
Illustrated by Nguyen Quang & Kim Lien

For ages: 4-8
An’s grandmother, Ba, has dementia, so much of her life’s memories are seemingly lost. The little girl spends hours with Ba daily, feeding her sweet fruit and singing old familiar songs. Ong, the grandfather, also wants to help his wife remember. So he plants seeds to grow the particular fruit they both enjoyed in lam, a traditional sticky rice dish. This was the same food the couple ate at their wedding, where they were wished “Hundred Years of Happiness” by their families. Growing the fruit is difficult and takes many attempts. The dish doesn’t work right away, and Ba only recovers a small memory when it does. But through Ong’s perseverance, he teaches An about holding appreciation for even the smallest things of beauty.

If you’re anything like me, this will be one of the books you can’t help but shed tears over. It’s a beautiful story of enduring love across generations and time in the face of such horrible illness that steals people away from us. The illustrations are lush, with vines growing along the margins of the page bearing the fruit that will unlock the woman our characters remember. I love that this text doesn’t provide a false fairy tale ending; it grounds itself in the reality of what dementia is like. That honesty is something children desperately want. Hundred Years of Happiness is one of those great pieces of children’s literature that I hope finds a big audience. It deserves that.  

Activities

1. Make lam using the recipe in the book. If you are working at home with your kids, do this together. If you are a teacher, see if any student’s parents would volunteer to make it or if you want to make it yourself. Have students write about the dish before, during, and after trying it. Have students share their thoughts and why they think this dish had such a strong influence on the grandmother.

2. Students can talk to an important elder in their life. Ask them about their favorite food as a kid. Then the two can work together to make and share that dish, hopefully sparking some inter-generational conversation.

3. For more advanced students, this could provide a jumping-off point to research Vietnam. Using one cultural aspect as a focus will help, so offer them choices between things like Food, Fashion, Music, Sports, etc. By diving deep into one of those and writing a one-page essay on what they learned, you’ll expand students’ cultural literacy.

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