CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 1 . . . .September 2, 2005
This beautifully presented book describing the epic Chinese trickster tale of the Monkey King has been developed in response to the plight of abandoned street children in Mexico. The author, a Mexican who has worked with these children in Mexico City's shelters, begins and ends the book in such a shelter where he distracts the children from their nightmares by telling them an inspiring story about a courageous little being who overcomes all obstacles. Like Scheherazade, who spun unfinished tales over 1001 nights to the wicked king in order to save the lives of Arabian women, Santamar¡a uses the power of story to make a difference in the lives of the street children. Apparently, these nightly adventures did indeed make their daily existence more bearable, and the unconquerable Monkey King became their hero. Santamar¡a was exiled for his human rights activism and now lives in Canada. He is using his writing to raise awareness of these forgotten children and to build "a bridge of understanding and support between Canadian and Latin American children."
The story chosen to inspire the children features the most popular of the characters from "Journey to the West," a 16th century retelling of the Chinese legend about a Buddhist monk and his companions. Although no source is given in the book, Santamar¡a has woven together several stories of the Monkey King who learned great powers and used them to defeat amazing foes. The Monkey King was a mischievous trickster, however, and he tended to cause many of the problems he subsequently solved, but the author has not represented that aspect of his nature. In fact, the retelling glosses over his pranks, concentrating instead on his heroic deeds. Occasionally the story is condensed to the point that details that would engage a reader's interest are omitted. For instance, in the excerpt above, the reader is informed only that the Monkey King answered an important riddle that gained him pupil privileges and that he later so displeased the Master that he was expelled. And it is a surprise that, after years of laborious traveling to find the Master, he is suddenly able to fly home on a cloud. We are left to assume that he learned this and many of the subsequent magical acts he performs when he was studying the secrets of Immortality with the Master.
The impressive oil paintings by Brian Deines contribute greatly to the artistry of the book. He has depicted the stone monkey as a partially-clothed half-human and has chosen many of the dramatic moments to illustrate. Unfortunately, these are the dark and scariest parts of the story such as the terrifying King of Demons with all four arms wielding sharp swords and the Judges of Death with their glowing eyes and hair on fire. Surely these are the stuff nightmares are made of and a curious choice for a work intended to dispel such dreams.
In all, while the aim of the work is admirable, the execution is questionable, especially to share with children aged 6-8, as recommended in the publisher's promotional material. Prefer, instead, Ed Young's retelling Monkey King (HarperCollins, 2001) and use this book with older children to provide fodder for discussions of homeless and disadvantaged children in the world.
Recommended with reservations.
Alison Mews is the Coordinator of the Curriculum Materials Centre, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of NF, St. John's, NF.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.