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 The Asian Reporter's
BOOK REVIEWS


From The Asian Reporter, V14, #14 (March 30, 2004), page 12.

A fisherman’s wealth

Bird Boy

By Elizabeth Starr Hill

Illustrated by Lesley Liu

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003

Paperback, 56 pages, $5.95

By Josephine Bridges

"Chang could not talk, at least not to people." But the boy, born mute, can make "odd squawks and croaks" that birds understand. Chang’s father fishes with cormorants, so Chang’s skill has meaning in his family. And while the boy doesn’t talk with people, he has very little trouble communicating with them. Bird Boy is a lovely little chapter book with more than one moral.

Chang longs for responsibility, a splendid quality in itself. After he helps his father with "the Big Catch," an annual gathering of thousands of fish, the boy is given the opportunity to help raise a baby cormorant. Chang is thrilled that he is "finally old enough to help with important things."

With the help of his friend Mei Mei, Chang takes excellent care of the egg and then the hatchling. Chang wonders if Mei Mei is lonely because she is the only girl on the nearby farms. "Chang could understand that. Sometimes he was lonely, too." But when Mei Mei’s brother Jinan steals the baby cormorant — his idea of a joke — Chang must rise to a series of greater and greater challenges.

Elizabeth Starr Hill has written a book brimming with Chinese history and culture. Cormorant fishing is an ancient occupation in China, and "Chang’s father knew legends of great birds and mighty men, and fish as large as boats." There’s also a wonderful story-within-a-story of three complainers and their fate, told by Bo Won, the blind and lame village storyteller.

Bird Boy is a remarkably quiet, peaceful book, perhaps because its protagonist exhibits these qualities. Leslie Liu’s illustrations enhance this luminous feeling, particularly her picture of Chang and Mei Mei with the baby cormorant.

It is rare enough to find a children’s book that includes a wonderful friendship between a boy and a girl, but Bird Boy also contains two admirable characters with disabilities. Still, the author is never heavy-handed in her treatment of these themes, and the reader gets the impression that this is life as usual, which of course it should be.

"A good bird is a fisherman’s wealth," Chang’s father says. A child like Bird Boy is a treasure beyond reckoning.

 

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