Book Review: Gordon & Li Li series

There are surprisingly few bilingual Chinese-English children’s books for sale on Amazon, and even fewer that are appropriate for a family whose command of Chinese is, shall we say, uneven. The Gordon & Li Li series by Michele Wong McSween are among the very few that I would unreservedly recommend to parents who want to raise their children bilingual from the get-go. They’re great for toddlers because:

  • They’re board books
  • Each page focuses on just one word or concept
  • They’re super-colorful and have a very strong, consistent style.

They’re also ideal for situations (like ours) where only one parent has familiarity with Chinese: each word is presented in English, pinyin, simplified Chinese, and best-guess American phonetic spelling. (The phonetic spelling is of limited value – if you can’t read pinyin, you’re unlikely to get the Chinese pronunciation right).

Gordon and Li Li pantsGordon & Li Li Words for Everyday is the first book in this series, and we bought it for Jacob almost right away. These are words that are super-useful for American babies: “boy,” “girl,” “ball,” “book,” “cup,” “milk,” and, yes, “cell phone” are all in there. Our edition only includes English and pinyin on each page, which for us was enough as we were focusing on just getting Jacob to hear the sounds of the words. (For overachievers, the simplified Chinese are all listed in the back in a glossary of sorts). I’m happy to say that Jacob can understand at least two-thirds of the words in this book. He doesn’t always prefer them over the English when he speaks, but he certainly responds to the Chinese. (One of his favorite words in the world is “ba bu ball,” or basketball, and all variants on the word “ball,” but today when I asked him for the 球 (qiú), he went and got the ball without hesitation).

Gordon and Li Li killer whaleJacob’s Jewish grandmother got him Gordon & Li Li Learn Animals in Mandarin as a gift, and it is great! As someone who had an incomplete education in Chinese, learning to say 企鹅 (qì’é) is a lifesaver in the post-March of the Penguins era. It’s also nice that there’s no overlap with Words for Everyday — “dog” and “cat” are excluded. My only criticism of this book is that some of the animals are just a tad too stylized – the alligator in sunglasses, for example, or Gordon and Li Li themselves (blue and pink pandas). On the other hand, the ducks, chicken, and frog all have a certain, endearingly Chinese-cartoon quality to them.

There’s a third book, Gordon & Li Li Count in Mandarin, which haven’t gotten because we haven’t needed help with counting in Mandarin.

We, the Anderkoos, also appreciate that the books are copyrighted by “McWong Ink.”

And we’re totally excited that a Gordon & Li Li Learn Animals in Mandarin iPad app is coming out soon! Now we just need to get ourselves an iPad.

CD Review: Chinese Lullabies

Parents suffering from sleepless babies will pay anything for relief, and retailers make fortunes off pseudo-scientific quackery. Chinese Lullabies is the real deal: music that really can help a baby go to sleep. Or, at least, our little Jacob.

I’ll admit this CD won’t teach either you or your child much Chinese, except maybe “mā ma” (mother) and “bǎo bao” (precious one). It’s hard to glean Chinese out of singing, where tones are distorted; the Chinese in these songs are formally poetic (that is, not everyday language), and I find children’s voices (with lots of echo) hard to discern. Maybe if you really know your Chinese, you’ll do better than I.

What recommends this CD is the music, which is decidedly Chinese and not some Chinese translation of “Rock-a-bye-baby.” It’s uniformly soothing and peaceful – what you’d want from a lullaby album. The instrumentation seems to be a mix of authentic instruments and synthesizers, but it actually works. (I’ve got some other Chinese children’s CDs whose over-the-top synthetic sounds definitely do NOT work).

Jacob’s gone to sleep to this music for nearly nine months now – he doesn’t really need it anymore, so we occasionally skip it. We can’t really prove that this music soothes him because it’s good or because he’s so familiar with it after hearing it for most of his life, but really – isn’t the point of these lullaby CDs really to soothe the parents after a long day? I say yes. Buy this CD today.

CD Review: Speak & Sing Chinese with Mei Mei

Speak & Sing Chinese with Mei Mei is one of the best resources we’ve come across for getting Chinese into a predominantly English-speaking family. The CD comprises a mix of basic vocabulary lessons and songs that incorporate those words. For example, the lesson on body parts is followed, naturally, by a Chinese version of the well-known English children’s song Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. There’s no drilling on tones, grammar, or any of that, just “repeat after me” words.

Jacob loves this CD; for a while, it was an indispensible part of his morning routine. As we’re still waiting for his first words of any language, we can’t know if he’s learning any Chinese (or English).

Gene: I think this is a wonderful resource for both children and parents. Songs and music are fun and much easier to remember than just vocabulary words themselves. I find myself humming or singing many of the tunes from this CD throughout the day. Mei Mei exaggerates her pronunciation and tones, which I think makes it easier for a non-Chinese-speaker to pick up on the hardest aspects of the Chinese language.

For whatever reason Hu Mei Mei isn’t selling the rest of her resources on Amazon, but you can find them on her site, Mei Mei and Me. The DVDs (and VHS!) seem quite dated; I hope she does some upgrading soon as I really like this introductory CD. Highly recommended!