a list of…five books ambling across Asia

Ready for some armchair travel?  Today’s books make a little tour around Asia with stops in Thailand, India, China, Japan, and…southern California, at the home of some Korean-Americans.  These are fascinating glimpses of rich cultures for you and your kids to enjoy.


The Umbrella Queen, by Shirin Yim Bridges, illustrations by Taeeun Yoo

In the hills of Thailand there is a village of umbrella-makers.  Paper and silk, rainbow-hued, and painted with flowers and butterflies by the women and girls.  On New Year’s Day, and Umbrella Queen is chosen from this village — she is the one who has painted the most beautiful umbrella of all.

Little Noot longs to paint umbrellas, too.  When she is finally given a chance, though, she paints elephants instead of flowers– chasing butterflies, cavorting, parading…elephants!  Noot’s family is not at all pleased.  Elephants do not belong on umbrellas.  Noot understands that she must paint umbrellas to help earn money for the family; umbrellas with flowers and butterflies.  But out of the leftover scraps, Noot fashions tiny doll-size umbrellas, and these she paints with elephants, lining them up on her window ledge to cheer herself.

That year, the King himself is coming to the village to choose the Umbrella Queen!  What a hullabaloo!  As the King strolls along the beautiful, umbrella-lined street, his eye lights upon Noot’s tiny umbrellas.  What’s this?!  Elephants on umbrellas?!  What will the King have to say about this?  And who will he choose to be this year’s Umbrella Queen?

This is a charming story, with an interesting glimpse of the umbrella-craft which really is carried on in northern Thailand.  The illustrations are fantastic, colorful linoleum prints which bring the landscape and villagers and umbrellas to life, infused as they are with an oriental air.  Girls ages 4 and up will enjoy this book.

Balarama: A Royal Elephant, by Ted and Betsy Lewin

Speaking of elephants…

In India, these ginormous creatures have been used for centuries in religious festivals.  A select few are chosen as Royal Elephants, which participate in an annual parade for the festival of Dasara — a Hindu goddess.  This nonfiction book tells of the elephants and trainers of the Karapur Forest in southern India, and in particular the lead elephant — the Ambari elephant — who leads the maharaja of Mysore’s Dasara parade.

In two successive years, the authors traveled to Mysore to observe the elephant camps and the Dasara parade.  The first year they meet Drona, a magnificent elephant who carried the golden howdah in the Dasara parade for many years.  After his death, a new elephant named Balarama is chosen.  Elaborately painted, cloaked in brilliantly colored silks and satins, and topped with a huge golden shrine, Balarama takes his place among the stilt walkers, drummers, dancers, bamboo-wielding performers, and lines of glorious elephants in this exotic festival.

The Lewins give us a unique backstage tour and front row seat, as it were, to the traditions and Hindu beliefs surrounding these special elephants and the Dasara festival.  Their exquisite watercolor pictures magnificently capture the Indian forests, the massive elephants, the jewel-colored silken draperies and smart military uniforms shimmering in the Indian sunlight.  Beautiful book, with lots of information in a brief format.

Long-Long’s New Year: A Story about the Chinese Spring Festival, by Catherine Gower, illustrated by He Zhihong

Long-Long is a little Chinese boy getting ready to celebrate Spring Festival, and for the first time ever, he gets to go to town with Grandpa to sell their beautiful cabbages!  They need to sell lots of cabbages to get money for the festival.

Long-Long has quite an exciting time in town, so full of crowds and activity this time of year.  He helps out a bit at the bicycle repair shop, joins Grandpa to sell cabbages, shops at the colorful market for spices and rice and firecrackers and fish, buys little gifts for mother and little sister in the Hundred Goods Store, watches a glorious parade of dragons and flying fish, enjoys a yummy tang-hu-lu treat, and rides back  home in the cart behind Grandpa’s bike just in time for Spring Festival.

Ahhhh.  This is a delightful story and a captivating peek at this little corner of China.  Happily following Long-Long about the village, we learn many intriguing bits about his life and culture.  The illustrations are…fabulous!  I love them!  He Zhihong studied traditional Chinese painting in Beijing and her fascinating, colorful paintings on rice paper are infused with the mystique of a far-off oriental land.  Exotic marketplaces and Long-Long’s little red shoes with faces; weeping Chinese willows and scarlet Chinese lanterns…all transport us to Long-Long’s intriguing world.

A retelling of the fable behind the Spring Festival celebration, and a guide to the Chinese characters that show up in the story, are included.  Recommended!

Hokusai: The Man who Painted a Mountain, written and illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray

Most of us are familiar with his print: The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

In this book, Deborah Kogan Ray beautifully narrates and portrays the story of Hokusai’s unusual life.  Born in 1760 in what is now Tokyo, Hokusai lived in poverty and was orphaned when he was six years old. He was drawn to art from his boyhood, delighting in forming intricate inky Japanese characters and poring over the beautiful illustrations in picture books.  He learned woodblock carving and painting under several master artisans, but chose to paint “the way my heart tells me” with unrefined subjects such as  humble farmers and fishermen at the docks.  He painted Mount Fuji over and over again.  The Great Wave off Kanagawa is from a series called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.

Hokusai created some thirty thousand works of art and influenced many of the famous French impressionists.  Yet when he died, he felt he had only begun to really see and capture something of the qualities in the world of nature.

Very interesting, clearly told story of this artist’s life.  Deborah Kogan Ray is also a wonderful illustrator who gives us warm paintings full of the landscapes and clothing, architecture and artistry, tools and processes of this era.  It’s a long-ish biography, suitable for ages 8 or 9 and up.

Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story, by Paula Yoo, illustrations by Dom Lee

He was the first Asian American to win Olympic gold for the USA.  The first male diver ever to win gold for diving in two consecutive Olympics.  Coach to diving greats Greg Louganis and Bob Webster.  And, for good measure, a medical doctor, serving in his parents’ homeland during the Korean War. 

The journey to all these accomplishments was not easy.  In the 1930s, it wasn’t only Black Americans who faced bans from whites-only privileges.  Asian Americans were also sadly excluded — barred from attending prom, from restaurants, and perhaps most important for Sammy Lee, from swimming pools.

Paula Yoo tells us Dr. Lee’s courageous, incredibly hard-working life story, from the first inklings of his talent for diving, through the daunting difficulties of training to dive — without the privilege of practicing in water!, through medical school, the disappointing cancellation of the Helsinki Games during WWII, and finally the 1948 Olympics in London.

Dom Lee’s fantastic illustrations were done, he says, by melting beeswax onto acrylic-painted paper, then scratching out the designs, and finally adding pencil and oils.  Well!  I think that would be fascinating to watch!  At any rate, he has achieved a marvelous, soft, retro feel to these glimpses of Sammy Lee’s world.  Nice little photo on the end papers of author and illustrator with an 84-year-old Dr. Lee.

Here are some links to these books on Amazon:
The Umbrella Queen
Balarama: A Royal Elephant
Long-Long’s New Year: A Story About the Chinese Spring Festival
Hokusai : The Man Who Painted a Mountain
Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story