Underneath the events about love, forbidden books, friendship, and everything else in the novel is a basic story about two boys in the process of growing up
. Still conflicted with an upbringing by parents declared enemies of Mao versus the nationwide worship of Mao's policies, the two boys explore and form their own ideals and morals throughout this book. It shows how rebellion is common in any teenager, and it ultimately shows that mistakes are all a part of growing up.
Sijie combines this coming of age novel with historical references to the Cultural Revolution and more abstract concepts like love and loss to convey an ultimate message: the process of growing up means developing one's own path through experience, whether it be love or loss, happiness or sadness.