Literary Insights: Little Soldiers

Blending Facts and Personal Experiences in Your Writing

By Susanne Carter

When Lenora Chu and her husband moved from the United States to China in 2010, their three-year-old son began attending kindergarten. Rainey was soon speaking Mandarin Chinese and writing Chinese characters. He was adding and subtracting double-digit numbers by the age of six. But Rainey was also force fed eggs by his kindergarten teacher, worried that the police might pick him up if he did not take a nap, and eager to have a red star plastered on his forehead as a reward for being still and silent.

Chu’s experience with the Chinese education system became the basis of her part personal narrative, part fact-based Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve (HarperCollins, 2017). In this essay I discuss Chu’s motives for and approaches to writing the book. In the Writers’ Notes, I give insights into successfully blending personal experience with factual information.

Lenora Chu and Little Soldiers

Lenora Chu was born in Taiwan but immigrated with her family to the United States when she was a child. She was educated in American public schools. In 2010 Chu reversed that process when she and her husband accepted journalism positions in Shanghai and enrolled their son in one of the city’s most prestigious kindergartens. Rainey’s experiences in school motivated Chu to begin a personal and professional inquiry comparing the American and Chinese ways of educating children.

To write Little Soldiers, Chu drew upon her son’s experiences as well as those of other students of different ages making their way through the highly competitive Chinese school system. She talked casually with other parents on playgrounds. She followed the academic path of two adolescent students she befriended. She observed classrooms (when allowed). She interviewed teachers and administrators (when allowed).

Chu also travelled to the United States to make observations and interview students, parents, and educators. She did extensive research, evidenced by the 18-page selected bibliography at the end of the book. This mix of personal and factual information was carefully blended by Chu in a seamless manner that makes for a smooth and compelling narrative.

Good Little Soldiers

Children in China learn early how to conform. There’s only one acceptable way to draw rain on your paper. If you take a risk and deviate from the prescribed tiny dots on your paper, you may find it tacked to the wall in disgrace. Although Chu and her husband were concerned that the militaristic approach and rigidity of the Chinese system might turn their son into a “good little soldier,”—and sometimes, unlike most Chinese parents, questioned it—they trusted that their parenting would have a great influence on shaping their son’s character. At home he was given choices, freedom, and a voice he did not have at school. Chu concludes that, because of his home life, her son was able to keep his creativity and individuality while receiving a solid early education foundation in school.

No Child Left Behind—Or Not

One fundamental difference Chu found between the American and Chinese systems was their opposing agendas. “The Chinese system is designed to weed out,” Chu said during an NPR interview, “and the American system is designed to do the exact opposite, to leave no child behind.” The Chinese agenda, adopted by the schools and most parents, puts incredible pressure on children to achieve, even at an early age, lest they be left behind.

Preparing Twenty-First Century Students

Chu makes no evaluative conclusions comparing the American and Chinese educational systems other than defending her own family’s choice to keep their son in Chinese schools. In her research Chu discovered that in analyzing each other’s approaches to education, the Chinese are becoming more Westernized (students are being given more choice and more voice) while Americans are integrating more Chinese ways into educating students, especially in the area of math where Chinese students excel internationally. All countries, she points out, are grappling with the best way to educate students for the challenges of the twenty-first century. We can all learn much from each other.

Writers’ Notes

More and more hybrid combinations of both fiction and nonfiction of writing are being published. Chu chose to blend personal experience with factual information to explore and compare the way Chinese and American systems educate children. Other writers have blended personal and factual effectively in nonfiction works such as Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001), Dispatches by Michael Herr (1977), Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick (2015), Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado (2014), and The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation by Natalie Moore (2016).

Little Soldier succeeds because it demonstrates these qualities of a well-written blended narrative:

  1. Chu has chosen a topic of current interest. In today’s highly competitive world, how we best educate our children remains a thorny issue.
  2. Chu has researched her topic thoroughly and the “facts” are presented in a very readable and understandable way.
  3. Chu’s narrative is written in one voice. The blend of personal experience and factual information is balanced; her transitions from one form to the other are smooth and seamless. We hear the words of both a mother and a journalist but the voice is one and the same.
  4. Chu makes a clear distinction between the way she writes about the choices her family makes for her son’s education and the analyses she does to compare the Chinese and American education systems. She remains objective on a global level but is clearly subjective on a personal level.

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