Quill and Quire


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by Paul Yee; Shaoli Wang, illus.

Two new picture books examine Chinese family life from the perspective of girls who outgrow confining roles. Bamboo is a folktale set in south China about a century ago. It follows the travails of Ming, who marries a young man named Bamboo and starts a bamboo farm, along with Bamboo’s brother and his wife. Trouble arises when Bamboo travels to North America to earn more money, and the sister-in-law, who hates Ming, steals her land and harasses her. But Ming, being as strong and flexible as the tree she cultivates, endures the mistreatment, and her remaining scrap of land flourishes with the help of a magic cluster of bamboo sticks.
Things seem tolerable until Ming receives the news that Bamboo’s ship has sunk. Refusing to believe that he’s drowned, she keeps vigil for him by the riverside, and one day falls into the water after saving the infant son of the nasty sister-in-law. In the happy ending, which seems plausible within the elastic realities of the folktale world, Ming’s qualities of perseverance, diligence, and loyalty are rewarded.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but since this is a tale written in contemporary times, I wonder why author Paul Yee didn’t create a more modern heroine. Ming is a combination of Cinderella (originally a Chinese story) and Pollyanna; she has courage and endurance, but she could have shown a little cunning or flash of defiance to relieve the slight stiffness of this otherwise elegant tale.
The illustrations, by Chinese folk artist Shaoli Wang, who lives in B.C., skillfully bridge the traditional and the modern. The vibrantly coloured scenes combine details from old, rural China with other touches, such as the friendly looking mice, that would fit in anywhere.
The Fragrant Garden is set in the New World, in a restaurant where the concern is not tilling the fields but running the till. Author Day’s Lee based the story on her memories of helping out in her family’s restaurant in Montreal’s Chinatown. The main character is Jade, a little girl whose ambition is to work at the cash register but whose father thinks she is too young. She sets out to change his mind by making herself useful around the restaurant, and after a series of near-mishaps, she succeeds in her ambition by preventing a major kitchen fire. Like Ming in Bamboo, she conquers adversity by persevering, and while she has considerably less to overcome than Ming does, Jade seems to have a little more fire in her belly. She’s more of an explorer than an endurer.
The words and pictures in this book marry particularly well. It’s a first children’s book for both the author and illustrator, who seem to share a love of movement. (The illustrator, Josée Bellemare, is also an animator.) For instance, one scene elevates the routine cooking of a stir-fry into a dramatic skirmish: “The short cook threw a family of bok choy/in with slices of beef,/and they tumbled about, wrestling this way and that.” The accompanying picture shows two cooks busy with their woks, elbows flying and vegetables dancing.
The Fragrant Garden offers lighter fare than Yee’s folktale, which may make it easier for young children to digest. Bamboo is not quite as much fun, but gives readers more to chew on, and might work better in a classroom setting.