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  • Written by Lensey Namioka
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  • Written by Lensey Namioka
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Written by Lensey NamiokaAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Lensey Namioka


List Price: $6.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 160 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43406-7
Published by : Laurel Leaf RH Childrens Books
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Third Sister in the Tao family, Ailin has watched her two older sisters go through the painful process of having their feet bound. In China in 1911, all the women of good families follow this ancient tradition. But Ailin loves to run away from her governess and play games with her male cousins. Knowing she will never run again once her feet are bound, Ailin rebels and refuses to follow this torturous tradition.

As a result, however, the family of her intended husband breaks their marriage agreement. And as she enters adolescence, Ailin finds that her family is no longer willing to support her. Chinese society leaves few options for a single woman of good family, but with a bold conviction and an indomitable spirit, Ailin is determined to forge her own destiny. Her story is a tribute to all those women whose courage created new options for the generations who came after them.


Our family, the Taos, lived in a compound with more than fifty rooms, all surrounded by a wall. Grandfather was head of the family, and he had two sons, Big Uncle and my father. Both of them lived there with their wives and children and their own servants. Each family had a set of rooms grouped around a courtyard. Although I spent most of the time in our own rooms with my parents, my two elder sisters, and my little brother, I often visited other courtyards.

When I was a baby, my wet nurse had been a sturdy woman from the country who had lost her own baby and had milk to spare. I had a dim memory of sucking at her breast and listening to her croon lullabies. Even after I was too old to nurse, I loved to climb up on her broad lap and listen to her tell stories. I noticed that she spoke differently from the other people in our household. She was sent away when I was four, and there were times when I desperately missed her kindly face, her warm embrace, and her lilting country accent.

My parents hired an amah, or governess, to replace her. My amah spoke in a soft, ladylike manner, but she had hard eyes that never missed a single thing. I hated her constant teaching and corrections, and I tried to annoy her by talking back, using my old wet nurse's accent.

An even better way of annoying my amah was to run and hide when she called me. This was exactly what I was doing on the day when I first met my fiance. At the time I was not quite five years old, but because my amah had bound feet, I could run a lot faster and I didn't have any trouble escaping from her. I skipped through the round gates that led from one courtyard to another.

I found a fragrant sweet-olive bush to crouch behind, and stifled my giggles as I heard my amah calling, "San Xiaojie! Little Miss Three!" Soon her voice lost its usual oily smoothness and became shrill.

Then I heard another voice. "Ailin, we're having moon cakes," said Second Sister. "Grandmother is entertaining guests in her room."

Moon cakes! I loved those little, rich, round cakes filled with sweet bean paste, nuts, lotus seeds, and other good things. I poked my head out from the bush. "Here I am! I bet I could stay here for a month without being found."

Second Sister laughed, but my amah was not amused. She seized my wrist in a grip that hurt, but loosened it when I winced. I knew she would think of some way to punish me later, but not while Second Sister was watching.

"Who are Grandmother's guests?" I asked as we hurried through two gates on our way to the courtyard where my grandparents lived.

"Young Mrs. Liu and her son," said Second Sister. She stopped and looked at me. "Your collar is buttoned wrong. You're supposed to look your best, Grandmother said."

"Why do I have to look my best?" I demanded. My amah undid the top button of my collar and pushed it through its proper loop.

Second Sister smiled. "Since Eldest Sister and I are all fixed up, it's your turn now." She wet a finger and used it to wipe away a smudge on my cheek.

"I don't understand," I said. "What do you mean by being all fixed up?"

"She means that their marriages have been arranged," my amah said with a smirk. "So it's time for Little Miss Three's marriage to be arranged, too."

"Mind you, I think you're still too young," said Second Sister. "You're not quite five."

I couldn't help grinning at Second Sister, who was only thirteen but stood smoothing her hair and trying to look like a grown-up. Maybe she hoped people would mistake her for Grandmother.

"It's never too early to have your marriage settled," said my amah. "Some babies are engaged before they're even born."

I laughed. "They can't do that! What if the babies turn out to be both girls, or both boys?" I wasn't quite sure what a marriage meant, but I did know that it involved one of each kind, not two boys or two girls.

"Don't be stupid," snapped my amah. She stopped, and said more quietly, "Of course the families would cancel the engagement if both babies turned out to be of the same sex."

"Come on, we'd better hurry," said Second Sister, "or Grandmother will get mad."

Always happy to visit Grandmother, I immediately ran on ahead. Every now and then, I stopped and waited impatiently for my amah and Second Sister. They followed more slowly, swaying gently and taking small, mincing steps because of their bound feet.

At the entrance to Grandmother's room, my amah bowed and left as Second Sister and I entered and greeted Grandmother.

"Come in, come in," said Grandmother impatiently. "What took you so long?" She turned to the guests. "These two silly scamps are my granddaughters, and their only aim in life is to make my old age miserable."

I wasn't fooled by Grandmother's crusty manner. I knew she would let me get away with almost anything. Grandfather was a little more frightening, but he spent all his time in his study reading dusty books, so I didn't have to see much of him. The only grown-up who really scared me was Big Uncle, Father's eldest brother. He and Father spent a lot of time together, and Big Uncle was always criticizing little girls who were too fresh.

Grandmother wore her usual long satin tunic over trousers, and on her head she wore her black velvet headband decorated with pieces of carved jade. The guests were a lady and a boy who looked somewhat older than I was, maybe seven or eight years old. The lady was elegantly dressed in one of the new fashions that some of my cousins' wives were wearing. It consisted of a silk hip-length tunic worn over a skirt reaching to the ankles. Grandmother always said that women's wearing skirts was a scandalous custom adopted from the foreigners.
Lensey Namioka

About Lensey Namioka

Lensey Namioka - Ties That Bind, Ties That Break
Lensey Namioka has written many popular books, including Ties That Bind, Ties That Break (Laurel-Leaf).
Praise | Awards


"Atmospheric and closely informed . . . this colorful novel has the force and intensity of a memoir."--Publishers Weekly, Starred

"Emotionally and historically illuminating."--Booklist, Starred


WINNER 2001 Texas TAYSHAS High School Reading List
WINNER 2000 ALA Best Books for Young Adults
NOMINEE 2002 Illinois Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Award
WINNER 2004 California Young Reader Medal
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide


Two girls, bound by friendship, defy the ancient traditions of their class and heritage and emerge as young women of indomitable spirit.

Ailin, the main character of Ties That Bind, Ties That Break, is born into the Tao family at a time when China is in great turmoil. The foreigners, known as the “Foreign Big Noses,” are eroding the empire by bringing in Western philosophies. More spirited than her older sisters, 5-year-old Ailin refuses to have her feet bound, causing the family of her intended husband to break their marriage agreement. Shamed by her decision, Ailin’s family is no longer willing to support her. At 14 she becomes the amah, or governess, for the Warner children and embarks on a new life that gives herhappiness in ways she never dreamed.

In An Ocean Apart, a World Away, 16-year-old Xueyan, Ailin’s best friend from school, wants to become a doctor. While Xueyan’s dream is unorthodox in her culture, her family is supportive when she moves to America to enroll in Cornell University. Lonely and suffering from culture shock, Xueyan is beginning to doubt her decision to come to America when she is reunited with her friend Ailin, who is now married and living in San Francisco. Ailin’s encouragement and a developing relationship with L.H., a male Chinese student at Cornell who has a modern view of women, gives Xueyan the courage she needs to pursue her dream.


Lensey Namioka was born in Beijing and moved to the United States when she was a child. She is the author of many books for children, including April and the Dragon Lady, a nominee for the Utah Young Adults’ Book Award; Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear, a Young Reader’s Choice Award nominee; Yang the Third and Her Impossible Family; Yang the Second and Her Secret Admirers; Ties That Bind, Ties That Break, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults; and most recently, An Ocean Apart, a World Away. Lensey Namioka lives in Seattle, Washington, with her family.


Pre-Reading Activity
Ask students to share what they know about China and the Chinese culture. Record their ideas on a chart, asking them to group their ideas in such categories as land, people, geography, and social customs. Divide the class into small groups and send them to the library media center. Ask each group to check their ideas for accuracy and to find an unusual fact in their category to share with the class.

Thematic Connections: Questions for Group Discussion

FAMILY AND RELATIONSHIPS–Describe the Tao family. Discuss Ailin’s relationship with her father. What is her relationship with her mother and grandmother? How does Ailin’s life change after her father dies? Why does Second Sister feel that she must warn Ailin of the dangers of being different? Ailin and her friend Xueyan are alike in many ways. How is Xueyan’s family more supportive than Ailin’s family? How is Xueyan’s father different from most Chinese fathers? What do you think Xueyan misses most when she comes to America?

COURAGE–Ailin is high-spirited, headstrong, and defiant, and her father supports her determination not to get her feet bound. How does it take courage for her to resist her elders’ wishes? How does it take courage for her father to stand up to Big Uncle? Does it take more courage for Ailin to remain in the United States or to return to her native land?
At what point in An Ocean Apart, a World Away do you realize that Xueyan is a courageous young woman? Discuss how her courage is tested throughout the novel. What is the difference between “courage” and “recklessness”? Cite scenes when Xueyan appears reckless. How does Xueyan’s visit with Ailin help her regain the courage to continue pursuing her dream?

VALUES IN CONFLICT–Ailin rebels against many ancient Chinese
customs. Discuss how change is the result of rebellion. How do Ailin’s father’s values differ from those of Big Uncle? How is James also fighting a war
against traditional Chinese customs and values? Suppose Ailin and James have children. Will the children be taught Chinese customs and culture?
How are Xueyan’s cultural values different from the other Chinese students
she meets at Cornell? How do these cultural differences contribute to her loneliness? Explain what Xueyan means when she tells Baoshu, “There is
no place for me in your world.” (p. 189)

SELF-ESTEEM–Explore Ailin’s statement “With the Warners, I felt I was making a contribution to the family.” (p. 141) At the end of the novel she tells Hanwei, “I’m proud of the hard work I did because by standing on my own
two feet, I helped my husband make this restaurant a success.” (p. 151) Ask students to contrast Ailin’s view of her self-worth to what she might have felt if she had remained in China.
In An Ocean Apart, a World Away, how does it take a positive sense of self-worth for Xueyan to pursue her dream? Xueyan says, “I never knew that growing up could be so painful.” (p. 192) How can self-esteem affect the process of growing up?

Connecting to the Curriculum

LANGUAGE ARTS–Ailin reads Chinese folktales to the Warner children. She is warned against reading anything that is closely connected to Confucianism, a “heathen” religion in the eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Warner. Ask each student to find a Chinese folktale or fairy tale that Ailin might read to Grace and Billy Warner. Allow the students time to give a brief oral summary of the story in class.

At the end of An Ocean Apart, a World Away, Xueyan and L.H. form a strong relationship. Ask students to write a letter that Xueyan might have sent to her parents describing L.H. and what he means to her.

SOCIAL STUDIES–In the treaty ending the Opium War of 1839, China ceded Hong Kong to the British in perpetuity. Ask students to research why the Opium War was such a threat to China. How did it affect the Chinese people? Then have them locate newspaper and magazine articles to find out when and why Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty. Engage the class in a discussion about why the entire world took such great interest in this event.
Ask students to study how the female characters in Ties That Bind, Ties That Break and An Ocean Apart, a World Away are treated by the male characters. Send students to the library media center to find out about the Marriage Law of 1950, established after Ailin and Xueyan’s time. How did this law change the lives of women in China? Then have students research the custom of mail-order brides in United States history. Have them compare and contrast the treatment of women in the two cultures.

SCIENCE–Ailin’s father dies from tuberculosis at a relatively young age. Ask students to research the causes, symptoms, and treatment of tuberculosis. The disease is still a threat to many Asian countries, and a new strand of tuberculosis is showing up in the United States. How and where can a person be tested for tuberculosis? How is it treated today?
In An Ocean Apart, a World Away, Xueyan comes
to America to study medicine. Ask students to investigate how Chinese medicine is different from traditional American medicine. Look at the curriculum for the study of Chinese medicine at www.actcm.org

ART–Ailin settles in San Francisco with her husband James. Have students identify some interesting places to visit in San Francisco and draw a picture-postcard that Ailin might send to Grace and Billy Warner on their return to China. Students may also enjoy creating an illustrated memory book that Xueyan might make after visiting Ailin in San Francisco.
Ailin studies Chinese writing when she attends school in the family compound. She is very proud when she masters the Chinese character for virtue. It takes fifteen strokes and is considered the most difficult character to create. Ask students to use a calligraphy pen, marker, or brush and create a small dictionary of simple Chinese symbols and their meanings. Bind the dictionary and design an appropriate cover.


The vocabulary in Ties That Bind, Ties That Break and An Ocean Apart, a World Away is challenging. Students should be encouraged to write down unfamiliar words and try to define them from the context of the sentence. Such words in Ties That Bind, Ties That Break may include lilting (p. 8), grimace (p. 20), fastidious (p. 27), looting (p. 35), lamented (p. 41), agility (p. 41), insolence (p. 73), lethargy (p. 77), concubine (p. 81), impertinent (p. 100), and impudence (p. 115).
Unfamiliar words in An Ocean Apart, a World Away may include legation (p. 9), feint (p. 27), arrogance (p. 31), consulate (p. 43), melodramatic (p. 63), traitorous (p. 66), reparation (p. 136), debase (p. 141), and monotonous (p. 165).


Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter
Adeline Yen Mah
Family and Relationships
Courage • Values in Conflict • Self-Esteem
Grades 7 up / 0-385-32707-2

The Giver
Lois Lowry
Values in Conflict • Courage
Grades 7 up / 0-440-21907-8

When Legends Die
Hal Borland
Values in Conflict • Courage
Family and Relationships
Grades 7 up / 0-553-25738-2



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