Monday, May 23, 2011

How Wise Were The Old Men (Chinese Translation)

Ah summer is here again, time to read and be contentedly lazy. Shen of the Sea : Chinese Stories for Children by Arthur Chrisman, is not the first thing I've read so far during my summer break, but it felt like the right book to review to get back in the swing of this blogging thing. For starters it is the very definition of light reading.  It only took me an afternoon to get through, and still it left me in a thoughtful mood. I should also add that having taken a course on children's lit this past semester I have a rekindled interest and appreciation for books aimed at kids ; So when I saw the brand new shelf reserved for Newbery Medal winners at Kearney's freshly renovated public library I went straight over and picked this up.

In the aforementioned class I read several Newbery winners, and without fail they were all worthwhile reads. This is quite impressive considering the fact that I've been underwhelmed and let down by just about every other literary award under the sun a time or two. The Pulitzer, The National Book Award, The World Fantasy Award, The Man Booker Prize, The Nebula, The Hugo, you name it - they have all lauded a stinker somewhere in their history.  Critics of the Newbery Medal have said that the Childrens Librarians section of the American Library Association, who award the medal, often pick the books they like, as adults, and not necessarily the ones that kids themselves would want selected. As true as that criticism may be I find it hard to find fault here. I mean honestly doesn't that very dynamic ensure greater quality? Think of awards in other mediums of entertainment, If you're fine with Justin Bieber sweeping award shows go ahead and watch Nickelodeon's Kid Choice Awards.  Personally I think the Newbery is more serious than that, and thus adults, who are after all the writers of childrens literature, should be so discerning when picking the one work every year deserving of the medal.  Now that I'm done with that rant we can get on to the fun part, the actual review.

Shen of the Sea was originally published all the way back in 1925 (winning the Newbery in '26) and as such it does feel a bit dated. However it's age also makes it all the more interesting to read today.  Literature has always provided a unique lens through which to view the past - and this is especially true in books for kids.  We see not only the prejudices and biases of the day, but also the curiosities and concerns of parents during that period.  Sometimes this is humorous sometimes it is embarrassing, or sad.  In the case of Shen of the Sea it was all three from the word go. The very first story included in the collection titled "Ah Mee's Invention" opens by referencing an old Chinese proverb about the positive side to rainy days in which " There will be plenty of leisure in which to beat the children".  This is not I might add, the only instance of child abuse humor in the book. In fact it makes no fewer than three appearances in the sixteen stories.   Of course the speaker in this case does not mean it to be taken literally. Yet his brother thinks he does, as his nephew Ah Mee  has recently stomped his 'honored uncle's' cabbage patch while pretending to be an elephant.  The boy had previously promised never to stomp the cabbages while pretending to be a dragon. Ah Mee's example is very similar to other children in these stories - who are mischievous and flawed, but still somehow remain endearing.  Folktales are often viewed as something akin to fables where morals seem to be found at the end.  Yet my understanding of the difference rests not in the existence of didactic devices , but the function of them.  In a fable there is a moral about human behavior - in a folktale, there is a fictionalized explanation for  a tradition in a given culture.  They are still lessons in their way, but they also connect in a larger sense to the people they are about.

The fact that this collection was written by a white man from Virginia may seem to render it inauthentic to some readers. Although personally I think Chrisman did a great job taking Chinese stories and presenting them to an American audience.  He chose his words with care and that has not only made this stand the test of time for adult readers but has kept it easy and fun for kids to read themselves.  Still, I imagine this book is at it's best when a parent reads it to a child, out loud. The names especially seem to illustrate this, as in one story "Chop-Sticks" the two main characters are Cheng Chang and Ching Chung. Many of the stories have similarly named characters so that the effect of reading them out loud creates those tongue twister sentences that make children giggle with glee.  The illustrations by Else Hasselriis are also eye catching and really help give the stories some added Chinese flavor ; they are black and white styled drawings that resemble Chinese print-making - which fittingly enough is the the tradition  featured or 'invented' in the first story.

Admittedly I am nowhere near ready to be a parent. Yet if and when I father something other than blogs and poems I will read this again. Out loud and maybe even in the voice of a little old Asian man.  For now I will settle for recommending it to friends and family who currently have one of those tiny monsters they call children running around pretending to be dragons, elephants, or even a Phineas or a Ferb (whatever the hell those things are supposed to be)