“We can’t have any animals in any of the stories” John said as we sat down to discuss story ideas.
“Not any animals at all? Why not?” I defiantly stated.
“If you look at all the characters for animals, they all fall outside of the 150 characters we have for the Breakthrough Level”.
John had spent months systematically creating the Breakthrough level standard. To develop the standard, he used special text analytics tools we have developed, employed a comparison of essential characters across different leveling standards, discussed results with his team at AllSet Learning, and added a little bit of his own intuition of the Chinese learning experience. He was quite clear about what or what would not be included in the Breakthrough Level.
“We have to be so careful about adding complexity to the story. For example, rabbit 兔子. Yeah, it’s a simple animal, but…” John went into an explanation about how when we use a new character it comes at the expense of a different character and we need to focus on the most relevant and useful characters for a learner to know at this level.
I’d heard this before, and I certainly agreed with it even if it stood at odds with my ideas for new stories. I found myself playing scant attention to this lecture as I was shifting through sheets of paper that held lists of characters and words that were within the 150 character standard. Then my eyes fell upon it.
“Horse!” I exclaimed. “Look, we have 马上 on the list, so we can use horse 马!”
“Of course we can use horse!” John exclaimed.
“Well, horse is an animal, so there!”
“Right, but we don’t have any other animals we can use!”
And that’s how “The Adventures of Hua Ma” 《花马》all began.
This is one of my favorite Breakthrough Level stories thus far. It has a fantastical theme to it, somewhere along the lines of Alice in Wonderland, a heart-warming story with a twist ending.
In the story, a boy named Nanan 南南 goes searching through the mountains near his home in search of flowers for his mother’s birthday. As he gets further into the mountains, he come across an ancient house with an old lady who beckons him inside. She asks him to help her find “Hua Ma” and if he does, she will give him some special flowers for his mothers birthday. When he leaves her home, he finds himself inexplicably transported to the tropical and distant island of Hainan while the old lady and the house have disappeared. Unsure of who or what Hua Ma is, he sets out on a quest to find him, realizing this mysterious Hua Ma may be his only chance to find his way back home!
In a favorite scene from the book, we have a fun word play with three characters 马 (horse), 妈妈 (mother), and 吗 (question particle) all which are pronounced ma. Here is an excerpt.
Get this new story for yourself or to help that friend who you think is ready to start reading Chinese. We hope that this new level will help an entirely new group of Chinese learners being building their proficiency at an even earlier stage and inspire them to reach to greater heights! Chinese really is a language you can learn. You can do it!