This Chinese folktale as retold by Mary Casanova and illustrated by the multi-award-winning artist Ed Young begins easily enough with all the elements commonly found in folk tales: (1) power of nature (2) drought/ starvation/ famine (3) strong sense of community/ kinship (4) a God who rewards and punishes (5) a hero.
Yet after reading the story, something else stood out for me. This picture book hardly has any colors. Printed in brown paper (with calligraphy drawn in the right hand corner – translations could be found at the beginning of the book), one can sense the dearth, the want, and yes, the stark simplicity with the lack of colors. The genius illustrations of Ed Young show how skillful dabs from a brush could produce and transform lines and curves into something of surreal significance.
Ministering to the Weak and Wounded. The first few pages show a striking similarity to the Chinese folktale on The Dragon Prince (or the Chinese version of The Beauty and the Beast) with the hero/protagonist Hai Li Bu saving a small, pearly snake which was captured by a crane. In The Dragon Prince, it was the daughter Seven who saved a water snake from being killed by her sister.
It turns out this harmless pearly snake was the daughter of the Dragon King of the Sea who offered Hai Li Bu a reward for saving his daughter.
Selflessness and Other-Centeredness. Being the true hero that he is, Hai Li Bu did not ask anything for himself, no “sparkling red rubies, forest green emeralds, ocean blue
sapphires, and shimmery pink pearls.” He chose instead the ability to understand the animals’ language so that he would become a better hunter to feed his people – who at the time, were starving and suffering from drought. Evidently, the treasures did not appeal much to him although he acknowledged that they looked beautiful. What was paramount to him was the survival of his people and being able to enhance the talents that were already given him (i.e. hunting). His wish was granted under the condition that he was not to reveal the secret of his gift, lest he turns into a stone.
A Moral Dilemma and Self-sacrifice. Things become complicated when Hai Li Bu learned from the animals that something terrible was about to happen in the village. His
warning and cries were met with skepticism and disbelief. In order to save the community, Hai Li Bu would have to reveal his source of information, thus divulging his secret.
Here we could discern the significance of kinship over one’s self, valuing the community over the individual, the seemingly-inevitable act of self-sacrifice, and the unyielding/ unwavering will of the gods.
While deceptively simple, the discussion could be brought to a higher level by educators who could bring in cultural elements or even a philosophical discourse of ‘breaking one’s oath’ as opposed to saving the life of many. Younger children, on the other hand, would be moved by the calligraphic art and the magical elements infused into the narrative.
The author, Mary Casanova, initially heard the story of Hai Li Bu from a foreign exchange student from China who was staying with her in Minnesota. She was recently awarded the 2010 George Morrison Artist Award in recognition of her valuable contribution to YA literature. To know more about her, click here to be taken to her website.
Ed Young has been described beautifully by Fats in her post on Lon Po Po which garnered the Caldecott Medal. A native of Tianjin, China, Mr. Young now lives with his family in New York.