Tso Fuyu, MA, Master of Arts, Graduate Institute of Children's Literature, National Taitung University
Selling Brooms with Nana is an illustrated children’s book that relates the childhood of author Jian Zhen, with illustrations by Huang Xiaoyan. Jian Zhen grew up in a farming village on the Lanyang (or Yilan) Plain, a fertile rice-growing region in northeastern Taiwan. In the village women and children were part of the labor force. In addition to working the land, the women would use their ingenuity to make everyday objects from whatever was at hand. The “brooms” described in this book were made from straw gleaned after the harvest.
To make brooms, young girls would gather the straw, lay it out to dry in the sun, then collect it again and strip off the outer husks by hand. This arduous process would leave the little girls’ fingers sore and bleeding, but they persevered because if they sold all their brooms, Nana would buy them rare treats such as kumquat sweets (boiled candy) and plum cakes. Once the brooms were finished, the little girls still had to get up early in the morning with Nana and trek over 20 kilometers to the next village to sell.
It was hard to stand in the sun selling brooms, but in many ways it was fun. Jian Zhen describes the sights and sounds with fond recollection: the roadside berries, the enormous piles of cow dung dotted with straw, Nana passing time chatting with women from nearby villages, the mouth-watering popsicles heralded by the approaching vendor’s bell, the enormous teapot awaiting thirsty travelers beneath the great banyan tree. In these simple evocations of village scenery, readers get a true taste of what life was like in 1950s-1960s Taiwan. We see the thrift and frugality of Taiwanese people in the past; we see their earnest attitude to life and their work ethic.
According to Jian Zhen, this time in Taiwan was “maternal age” because women such as Nana and Mama taught her everything she knew about life and the world. Maternal warmth is also the thread running through this book. At the end of the story, Nana sells all the brooms but one, which she holds back to swap for two popsicles so that her granddaughter can finally get her hands on the treat she’s been longing for. The sweetness of the delicious ice-confection not only rewards all her hard work but also symbolizes the depth of Nana’s love.