Ling is nine years old and has a rather idyllic life. She likes school. Her parents are doctors, so they live in a nice apartment next to the hospital. Her father is kind and loving and teaches her English every day using magazines, songs, and the Voice of America radio program. She dreams of one day going to the United States and seeing the Golden Gate Bridge. Her upstairs neighbors, the Wongs, are like family.
But life in Wuhan--and all over China--has been changing, and soon change comes to their very own building in the form of Comrade Li. Comrade Li works for Chairman Mao's government, and his job is to make sure everybody adheres to the policies of the Cultural Revolution...by any means necessary.
Comrade Li is truly frightening. Oh, at first he's nice, even though he insists on making his apartment out of their former study, which is now walled off except for a new front door and a tiny sliding window into their apartment. At first, he plays games with Ling, trading her origami animals and toys for a few eggs here, a few green onions there. But then, one day, Ling discovers her father burning all of his Western books and papers. Later, the upstairs neighbor Dr. Wong disappears, and it's rumored he was taken away by the government. Not long after that, Comrade Li's cronies ransack their neighbors' apartment and destroy or confiscate many of their possessions.
Food becomes scarce, and even ration tickets don't guarantee that Ling's family won't be hungry at night. Her father is forced to give up practicing as a doctor and instead become a hospital janitor. And school has gone from a joy to a nightmare. Skipped up to fifth grade, Ling discovers that she's forced to share lessons with a classful of bullies, all aspiring Young Pioneers for the Red Guard who accuse her of being a bourgeois. At home in their apartment building, residents are forced to practice revolutionary songs and dances in honor of Chairman Mao, morning and evening. If they do anything that's considered antirevolutionary, they are humiliated publicly in the courtyard, or even physically abused by the Red Guard. Unfortunately, even Ling's family isn't safe from the oppressive tactics of the omnipresent Red Guard.
It's frightening to realize that this book--Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party, by Ying Chang Compestine--is based on the experiences of the author herself as a child in 1970s China. It sounds like any number of scary cautionary dystopian novels--The Silenced, the Shadow Children series, Fahrenheit 451--except that these events really happened. Luckily, the Cultural Revolution did not last forever, and in the end, Ling and her family were luckier than many. Though her innocence suffers, the novel ends with the possibility still intact that Ling--like the author--would one day realize her dream of seeing the Golden Gate.
One quick caveat: Although in the book, the character starts at age 9 and the story follows her for a couple of years, I would hesitate to give this to young MG readers. Some of the scenes were quite shocking and even brutal. Of course, that reflects reality, but it's not a very happy reality, and few readers would be able to remain unaffected by the story.