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Words of wisdom

Spokane author Sarah Conover’s new book encapsulates China’s traditions of wisdom and spirituality in 155 pages

It’s not easy to define any country in a mere 155 pages. Imagine, then, trying to do it with China.

That was the challenge that Spokane author Sarah Conover set for herself when she looked for a way to continue her “This Little Light of Mine” series, which is being published by Eastern Washington University Press.

The result of Conover’s efforts is “Harmony: A Treasure of Chinese Wisdom for Children and Parents” (EWU Press, 155 pages, $19.95 paper), which she co-wrote with a couple of Chinese partners – writer Chen Hui and illustrator Ji Ruoxiao.

Conover, 52, had already written three books in the series. Each was intended as a way, she wrote, “to broaden our knowledge of and perspective on world traditions of wisdom and spirituality.”

To which she added one recent afternoon in the Rockwood Bakery: “Anytime we can bring a bit of multiculture to Spokane, fantastic.”

Conover’s first book, 2001’s “Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents,” was illustrated by Valerie Wahl.

Three years later she co-wrote “Ayat Jamilah: Beautiful Signs: A Treasury of Islamic Wisdom for Children and Parents” with Freda Crane (Wahl again illustrated). In 2005, Conover followed with “At Work in Life’s Garden: Writers on the Spiritual Adventure of Parenting.”

Regarding the series, she said, “I think it’s pretty much the only one going in the States for K-through-12 educators.”

Getting the books into the hands of primary- and secondary-level educators is Conover’s main aim. She even quit her teaching job at the alternative Spokane Valley High School to help with promotion.

“I think we need to develop an appetite for differentness,” she said. “And religions are another way of talking about people’s values and trying to get behind a worldview.”

After doing books on Buddhism and Islamic wisdom traditions, she knew her next destination. The question involved how best to get there.

“I always wanted to do a book on China,” Conover said. “But how do you do China? Big topic, wisdom traditions of China. It took me two years to think of an approach.”

As usually happens, the best way turned out to be the most basic. Conover decided to concentrate on the Chinese idioms known as chengyu, which are phrases and/or proverbs told succinctly in four Chinese characters.

In the bilingual book, Conover and co-author Chen – who, when Conover met her, was teaching Chinese at St. George’s School – use a four-part process.

They replicate the idioms in the basic Chinese characters, elaborate on them in expanded Chinese script, translate them literally into English and then, Conover said, “retell them again in English as a more filled-out story.”

Though there are by some accounts 30,000-odd chengyu, Conover and Chen – to the surprise of a few Chinese friends – use only 24 in “Harmony.”

Those 24, though, had to fit several criteria: They had to be

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