CM . . . .
Volume V Number 12 . . . . February 12, 1999
Long ago, in the green mountains of China, the village called Beyond the Clouds was ruled by a cruel and clever Emperor. But the mountains were high, and the Emperor was far away. The warm climate and fertile soil, and especially the help of a neighbouring elephant family, provided the hard-working farmers with a prosperous and peaceful life. The villagers took great care of the friendly elephants, particularly the baby Huan-huan.With this gentle beginning, Ting-xing Ye sketches out a tale of good and evil which pits the Emperor in his far away palace, against a young elephant keeper, Hei-dou. Rising at daybreak, Hei-dou escorts an elephant family of mother, father and baby Huan-huan, to the village. While the parents work, Huan-huan plays with Hei-dou and the other children. His supple trunk is an asset in the games of kite flying and the play with shuttlecocks. When school is out, Huan-huan even rises up and dances in the midst of the throng of children. When news of Huan-huan's friendliness reaches the Emperor, he orders his soldiers to bring the elephant to him. When Huan-huan neither performs tasks nor responds to commands or shouts, the Emperor threatens to banish him from the palace and from the village, sending him into exile. The villagers are given only one chance to win back the elephant; they must tell the Emperor how much Huan-haun weighs. A solution eludes even the combined efforts of scholars, shopkeepers and farmers. It is Hei-dou who proves his resourcefulness and finds the answer to the riddle, bringing Huan-huan back to the village.
Ting-xing Ye has created a satisfying tale of the power of love. Other young lovers of animals will be charmed by Hei-dou's devotion to his elephant friend. His gentleness is a wonderful contrast to the selfish Emperor who can insist that he should have the best of everything, but who cannot break Huan-huan to his will. Ting-xing Ye has written powerfully for adults about her own experiences of China. For children, she has distilled a sweet, empowering tale which touches the "long ago."
Illustrations by Suzanne Langlois are a wonderful complement to the text. Her watercolour illustrations combine beautiful detail in face and dress, with soft washes of colour for the lakes and distant mountains. The emperor glowers meanly behind his brocade and jewels, the children play with all manner of kites and paper toys. With so much detail provided, picture book fans have an abundance to pour over while the text unfolds.
Jennifer Johnson is a public librarian working in Ottawa, Ontario.
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