review: Secrets of the Terre-Cotta Soldier

title: Secrets of the Terre-Cotta Soldier

authors: Ying Chang Compestine and Vinson Compestine

date: Amulet (Imprint of Abrams)photo; January 2014

Main character: Ming

Ying Chang Compestine, author of Revolution Is Not A Dinner Party, grew up in the time of the Cultural Revolution in China and wants to interest young readers in Emperor Qin, ancient Chinese history and the power of friendship. Secrets of the Terre Cotta Warrior was written with her son to explore duty to family, friends and country.

Fourteen year-old Ming has been left home alone while his father goes to once again plead for more time to maintain the village’s archeological office. Ming’s ba-ba believes that they’re close to uncovering the treasures of Emperor Qin and he’s not ready to stop searching. While he’s gone, the Gee Brothers make an incredible find: a complete terre cotta soldier. Though initially comfortable leaving the statue with Ming, they eventually decide they want the statue back.

Ming magically brings the Shí, the soldier to life and the two quickly becomes friends. This friendship is just as quickly tested when the Gee brothers come to reclaim their statue. Ming wants to keep his friend through a sense of duty rather than the sense of greed that comes to destroy so many others in the book. Through interplays between Ming and Shí, text and images and the past and present, readers explore loyalty to country then and now.

Shí shares stories of his life in ancient China as parallel events play out in Ming’s life. As an example, Shí recounts his battle again the Mongols and Mao’s rebels come to Ming’s home. Through is overlap in storytelling, the Compestines create a sense of continuity in the histories they’re telling.


Shí looked impress. “Ha, you paid attention, young man! That’s correct. But they changed their tactics when the weather grew cold. The Mongols desperately wanted to capture our supplies, so they attacked indiscriminately. Believe it or not, I secretly wished they would succeed in getting onto the wall. That way I would have a chance to kop off their heads, claim my rewards, and free my father.”

“Why didn’t you just go down after the battle to collect a few heads?” Ming imagined farmers out in the fields harvesting watermelons.

“We couldn’t.”

“Why not?

Ming heard rough voices outside and then heavy pounding on the gate. He stood up.

We were prohibited from leaving our post,” answered Shí. “The cavalry men knew that too. To mock us, they would wave the heads at us. That was when I vowed to join them.”

There was a sharp crash. Startled, Ming jumped up. The front gate had been kicked open!

Images used in the story are actually historic photos that are placed to reinforce the text. Junot Diaz states that “The more accurate the image, the more ‘ghost’ the ghost becomes.” Indeed, these pictures deepen the sense of history the story provides.

The book I reviewed was an advanced copy. I encountered awkward in-text translations of some of terms that were first presented in English, then Pinyin and then Simplified Chinese.

I think the book’s strong focus on history distracted from the authors’ ability to build suspense. Historical detail is rich, but I didn’t feel sense of urgency, impending danger or mystery to solve. I did enjoy the history. I liked the authors’ ability to paint verbal scenery, bringing the setting to life. I think this book would have to be classified as historical fiction, but it will appeal to middle grade male readers much more that historical fiction typically does.