by Ed Young
This poem started life on a roll of paper towels; Young scribbled a rough draft in a washroom and kept it for 20 years. His press release makes him sound like something of a pack rat, squirreling away scraps that he recycles in his torn paper collages.
I don’t envy his family living with that clutter, but the result is an elegant tribute to his native country. The book opens vertically the way Chinese was meant to be read, with the English verses printed on the edges with the pages staggered, so you can read the whole poem at once.
Inside, each collage first shows us an understated, elegant scene from nature, be it a mist-covered mountain or a sprig of wheat. But each one’s also a clever pictogram of a Chinese character.
Written Chinese is a pictorial language and this book shows how some of the characters evolved (a table in the back compares ancient and modern characters).
That’s not to say East trumps West. Young blends both in perfect Taoist harmony, and credits Matisse’s paper collages for his inspiration. The famous Expressionist’s influence can be found in the marriage of unusual colors – bold turquoises and subdued browns, flamingo and speckled gray – and in achieving a high emotional impact with just a few, lean strokes.
This instantly became one of my favorite children’s books of the year, though my three-year-old is far too young for its subtleties. Save this exploration of the Middle Kingdom for slightly older children, maybe ages 6 and up.