Too Many Suns.
Julie Lawson. Illustrated by Martin Springett.
Kindergarten - grade 6 / Ages 5 - 11.
Beyond the Eastern Ocean at the far end of the world, lived a different family, a family of ten suns. These ten suns, from Largest Sun to Smallest Sun, roosted in a giant mulberry tree whose branches scraped the heavens. Every morning, one sun would rise and sail across the sky to the Western Sea. There, he would paint a sunset, splash through the sea to renew his brightness, and return to his home in the East. The next day a different sun would light the world.
CHINESE MYTHOLOGY has more than one version of the "ten suns" story. Award-winning author Julie Lawson (The Dragon's Pearl and Kate's Castle) has combined aspects of different versions with a more earthly story of her own devising, about a farm with ten brothers. (One guesses the idea was suggested by son and sun being homonyms -- which makes the project interesting; a Chinese tale born from an English pun.)
Both life on the farm and life in the heavens follow unchanging patterns. The youngest in both families yearn for change -- the earthly Youngest Brother because he wants to paint sunsets, the celestial Smallest Sun because he knows his light is more golden, his sunsets more beautiful than those of his brothers. But both restrain themselves. "Better to learn patience," the Smallest Sun sighs, "than to upset the way of things." As it turns out, it is the Largest Sun who breaks tradition:
"Why do we have to take turns?" asked the Largest Sun. "I hate spending nine days roosting like a bird in a tree."
The older Suns decide that they will stop taking turns and all rise together. Only Smallest Sun is doubtful:
. . . "I don't like taking turns either, but isn't that the way of things?"
His brothers refused to answer.
Of course the presence of ten suns at once is disastrous for Earth -- "Rice plants shrivelled, streams ran dry." Ultimately the Jade Emperor sends Li, the Immortal Archer, to shoot the suns from the sky. Li succeeds, and is at the point of shooting down the last sun (the Smallest Sun), when the Youngest Brother summons his courage and tugs at the Immortal Archer's robe to plea "Please! Leave us one sun."
Lawson's blend of invention and mythology is seamless, and holds reverence for tradition and individual aspiration in a nice balance. We may lose the story of the farming brothers slightly in the excitement of the celestial drama, but by and large the parallels work and make a thematic whole. The story has the fascination of Chinese mythology and is both simple and intriguing. And children like stories where the smallest or youngest triumph.
Governor General's Award-nominee Martin Springett (Mei Ming and the Dragon's Daughter and The Wise Old Woman) gives his illustrations a Chinese flavour, stylizing his figures and landscapes without denying them individuality.
The design of the book is extraordinarily good. Full-page illustrations face the text, which is set on pages with identical frames (a runner of stylized blue and orange clouds, and a great looming sun). The repeated design gives unity and suits the story, but the bottom of each text page also contains a narrow panel with another illustration, often balancing the facing full-page picture (if one is of celestial events, the other might show the farm, or vice versa) or showing a long action that draws the eye along to the larger illustration. The effect is rich and cinematic.
Diane Fitzgerald is an elementary-school teacher in Saskatoon.
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