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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #45 (November 7, 2006), page 15.
A mixed bag of favorite folktales
Chinese Children’s Favorite Stories
By Mingmei Yip
Tuttle Publishing, 2004
Hardcover, 96 pages, $16.95
Favorite Children’s Stories from China & Tibet
By Lotta Carswell Hume
Illustrated by Lo Koon-chiu
Tuttle Publishing, 2004
Hardcover, 112 pages, $16.95
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
Folktales from foreign countries can be a mixed bag of sorts — it’s thrilling to find stories similar to one’s own culture, or which explain important cultural differences. On the other hand, sometimes foreign tales can be — well, foreign. The lesson behind the tale may be inscrutable, along with the idiosyncratic behavior of its characters, and the result can be not so much a story as a puzzle, and not a very interesting one, at that. Such is the case with these two titles from Tuttle Publishing, which tell "favorite" Chinese and Tibetan children’s stories. One has gorgeous, gallery-quality artwork to accompany its antiquated, stiff text; the other features far more accessible writing, but artwork that is overly bright and much less accomplished.
Some of this unevenness may be explained by the writer/illustrator paradigm in children’s books — a gifted artist who can also write well (such as Allen Say) is a rare find. Most often, publishers pair good writers with good illustrators, and hope for a good chemistry between the two. Mingmei Yip may have overreached her own talents in trying to both write and illustrate Chinese Children’s Favorite Stories. Her writing creates a good mix of narration with occasional cultural asides to explain unfamiliar concepts to Western readers. The tales she has chosen are also a good blend of short and long stories; ones featuring gods and goddesses with those focusing on common people and animals; and "Just So" origin stories with those that explain Chinese sayings or traditions. Particularly enjoyable are "Playing the Qin for the Water Buffalo" and "The Frog Who Lived in a Well," good examples of Yip’s ability to make the exotic accessible.
Where the book falls down, however, is in Yip’s illustrations. Though they feature traditional Asian elements, as well as accurate period dress and artifacts, the palette she chooses to use is far too garish and her technique leaves most of the artwork feeling two-dimensional, almost childlike. The lack of gradations in color and the awkward renderings of many figures reduce the illustrations to flat, sometimes puzzling, compositions that initially draw the eye and then immediately repel it again. While there are some elements of two-dimensionality and stylized postures in traditional Asian artwork, Yip does not display the kind of formal technique that would make the illustrations work on this level.
Yip would have done well to pair her writing with the illustrator of Favorite Children’s Stories from China & Tibet, Lo Koon-chiu, who displays a marvelous ability to adapt classic Chinese watercolor style to the tales in his book. His people and animals fairly leap off the page, and backgrounds display the soft brushwork typical of classic Chinese artwork. Whether it is a smaller piece or a full-page spread, Lo’s illustrations vibrate with talent and accomplishment and make all the stories in the book memorable. Original artwork from children’s books is sometimes found hanging on gallery walls, and Lo’s watercolors are certainly worthy of that honor.
Unfortunately, Ms. Hume’s text, first published in 1962, comes across as stiff and somewhat antiquated, detracting from the immediacy of Lo’s marvelous illustrations. Much like other children’s books from this era, Hume tends towards formal, British-inflected, schoolmarm-ish language, sometimes paradoxically including details not generally considered appropriate for younger readers today. "The Tiger in Court," for example, features a magistrate who, getting angry with an old woman, "bade her begone" and an attendant "who happened to be gloriously drunk" promising to capture a man-eating tiger. Other stories feature a stepmother who "drove forth" her misbehaving child, and a fox who boasts of a toad that he could "get him under my foot and stamp him out." While the Britishisms prevalent throughout do not completely hamstring the book, they will not help to engage younger readers in what may be an already foreign subject.
Favorite Children’s Stories from China & Tibet is clearly the better of the two books, as the deficiencies in the text are overcome by the beautiful artwork. Reading both titles together, it is interesting to compare a few similar stories, to see which book gives the more effective and memorable telling. Hume and Lo win this battle hands (and paintbrushes) down. Either book, however, will provide an interesting glimpse into other cultures, and the lessons and aphorisms that they strive to teach their children. One would expect to find titles both good and bad among the broad range of artists and writers chosen for Tuttle Publishing’s Favorite Children’s Stories series, and these two titles display well the uneven results.