November 7, 2017

diary ma yan

The Diary of Ma Yan

Ma Yan

Pub. 2002

176 pgs.

Genre: Memoir, Diary

Summary / Review / TLDR / Recommended For / Issues / Themes / Grade


There’s nothing more that Ma Yan wants than the chance for a good education. She needs it, and deep in her heart, she knows she can succeed if she has the chance.

But education isn’t guaranteed. Ma Yan was born to an impoverished family in rural China, and between her and her two brothers, her family is struggling just to afford food to feed everyone. They, too, know that the only way out of their dire circumstances is to see their children succeed in school, go to a university, and get jobs in the city. In their village, though, girls are often married by sixteen and mothers by twenty.

Ma Yan seems to be headed down that same path, until one day a French photographer arrives and is given her diaries…



This is one of those stories where you wonder if serendipity really does exist. Pierre Haski, the man who originally translated and published Ma Yan’s diaries in a newspaper, was really just there to take some photos of backwater China, which in 2002 had barely changed in hundreds of years. Ma Yan’s mother was the one who actually gave him the diaries, and he said when he read them, he knew he had to do something to help the teenager achieve her dreams.

The diaries cover only a few months of two different years of Ma Yan’s life, but they’re more enough to give readers a glimpse of the harsh realities of life for Ma Yan and her family. Her parents are often gone, working in places like Inner Mongolia or in fields hundreds of miles away to make enough money to buy new clothes, some food, and pay school fees for the children. The schools that Ma Yan and her brothers attend are often so far away that they live in dormitories during the week, only returning home on the weekends. They walk many miles home on Friday, only occasionally able to afford the 1-yuan (15-cent) fare tractor drivers charge for a ride. Even when they do have the money for it, she and her brothers often walk home anyway, just to save it for when they genuinely need it.

But that’s not the toughest challenge Ma Yan faces. She’s always, always hungry. When she’s in middle school, Ma Yan has to bring a huge sack of rice at the start of the year, and ostensibly she’s given one meal from it a day. If she arrives at the “cafeteria” building late, there usually isn’t anything left. She describes splitting half a pound of rice with one of her roommates so neither of them starve, and how her brother sneaks into fields on their way home to steal onions or some cabbage so their bellies will be full enough to get them home. Her father usually gives her a little money to buy apples to go with the plain rolls she and her brother eat for dinner.

And still she studies! She studies constantly. Ma Yan is terrified of being the slowest person in her class because she knows how hard both her parents work just to be able to send them all to school. When she gets a bad grade, she beats herself up over it and studies even harder. When she does well, she floats on air because she knows she hasn’t wasted the opportunity her parents’ blood, sweat, and tears has bought her. What teacher wouldn’t give their left foot for a class of students like that?

Because that’s the real takeaway from this book. Most of the kids I work with (I can’t say all, but most) live in households where it’s literally nothing to just walk to the kitchen and grab a snack, then walk back to their bedroom, flip on their computer and their phone, and hang around all day. In the morning there’s plenty of hot water for a shower, a closet full of clean clothes to change into, plenty of options for breakfast, and then a quick walk or bus ride to school. Homework may or may not get done, but who cares? College is virtually guaranteed, even if it’s community college for a few years. None of it’s a big deal.

But with Ma Yan, there’s this girl, this real girl, not some “grown-up writer invented her” girl, literally starving so she can afford to buy a new notebook for school, walking miles and miles to get there, never seeing her parents for months at a time, all so she can get a good job and take care of them when they’re older. So she can repay them for everything they’ve sacrificed for her. She knows her parents could stop sending her, and what her life would be if they did. She has two options: go to school and learn or stay home and earn. There is no in between.

My point is, this book should be read in middle schools. I’m not even thinking it’s necessarily an option. I’m thinking, in sixth grade the kids have geography as part of this Common Core curriculum. Have them read this book as a multidisciplinary activity. Really show them in words written by a student not much older than they are how lucky they are to have the opportunities they do. Maybe then they’d stop breaking their pencils on their foreheads for fun and shrugging with first-world lassitude when they’re told to do something.

Side Note: The organization mentioned in this book, Enfants du Ningxia, is no longer in operation. However, there are plenty of other charities, such as Aim for Seva, designed to help students in impoverished areas have access to education.



Students need to know about this book. The diaries aren’t exactly brand new now, but it doesn’t matter—in many parts of the world, Ma Yan’s story is still the story of many ambitious, talented kids, and all kids should understand that.


Recommended for…

  • Middle schoolers, to read as soon as possible
  • High schoolers, so they don’t forget
  • Everyone, so they can help where they can



  • Bullying: some characters bully one another
  • Lying: characters lie to avoid trouble
  • Physical Abuse: corporal punishment is still used in Ma Yan’s schools
  • Shaming: some characters try to shame others
  • Supremacy: some characters believe they’re better than others
  • Theft: character steals food
  • War: war stories and references to WWII and the Korean War



  • Change vs. Tradition
  • Determination
  • Education
  • Family
  • Growing Up
  • Identity
  • Overcoming Adversity
  • Responsibility
  • Survival



Main Character 2
Subcast 2
Setting Development 2
Exploration of Conflict 2
Satisfying Resolution 1
Consideration of Themes 2
Didactic Tone 1
Suspension of Disbelief 2
Imagery and Description 2
Compelling Storytelling 2
Author’s Style 2
Rhythm and Pace of Book 2
Mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation) 2
Predictability 2
Reader Enjoyment 2
Total 28/30


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