We bought this book because my youngest is going through a dragons phase, but many of the western dragon stories depict dragons as monsters. The Eastern stories see dragons very differently, as signs of good luck and prosperity, as well as a guardian or protector.
This is the story of a kind hearted little boy who lives all alone. Every day he collects enough wood to sell to buy food, and while he is poor, he doesn't seem to notice this as his condition is no different from those around him. One day he finds a magical red stone. When he places this in his rice bowl, the rice overflows no matter how much he eats. When placed in a money bowl, the money also flows over the top. Ah Bao is a kind and generous child, so he shares his wealth with the others in his village, but while they now have an abundance of food and money, the rains have stopped and they have no water. Ah Bao hopefully places the stone in the water bucket, but rather than causing more water to appear, the stone sucks the water up. That night Ah Bao dreams of a water dragon, bringing much needed rain to his village and determines to find this creature and plead for its help.
As Ah Bao travels in search of the dragon, he encounters many beasts, each in need of help. The kind child stops and helps each one, who give him a gift of item he will need later, advise him to keep traveling East, and warn him of the greedy red monster he will encounter along the way. He collects a very strange assortment of gifts as he continues his journey, a bit of snake's skin, a scale from fish, antlers from deer and claws from eagle. Just how he will use these, I will leave to you to find out, as well as how a tiny child can stand against a huge demon, for this is what the greedy red monster appears to be, and how he will eventually find the water dragon.
But because this is a child's book, I will give away this much - the book does have a happy ending, and when you have finished reading the story you will know why the water dragon is the way he is. This is another story with a moral, but children are not likely to notice this. It does not come across as trying to teach anything, and that perhaps is why it is such a wonderful teacher. It simply presents and example of goodness and kindness, and shows that helping others is the way to fulfil a quest like this, because more than anything else, this is a voyage of self discovery.
This book is written in English and Chinese. The blog on the back suggests that this is a useful introduction to the Chinese language. As much as I love this book, and I honestly do love it, I would disagree with this. We enjoyed looking at the Chinese text, and I feel that it is useful for children to be exposed to things like this pertaining to other cultures, but there is no way to decode the Chinese characters by comparing the two different texts. A small key at the back of the book giving us a few of the most common characters would have been a nice touch, but in all honesty, I had no intention of my child or myself learning Chinese from this book. I bought it primarily because it looked like a nice story, and also because I do like reading my children stories from other parts of the world.
I did begin choosing multicultural stories after reading that if a child was exposed to the traditions and stories of other cultures in the home, they usually grew up more tolerant of differences. I can't say that I am completely sold on this idea. The key factor to me is that the stories need to be in the home. I think parents who make an effort to make teach their children about other cultures in a positive manner are likely more of an influence than the stories themselves. But I soon discovered that there are many wonderfully magical tales from other countries, which are well worth purchasing just for the sake of enjoyment. I also found that many of these stories do serve as an example of good and moral behaviour. I believe that everything that is good about my own character is a direct result of the stories I was told as a child, especially from my grandfather. I think stories are a good way to build character, as well as a wonderful way to spend time with a child. I can only describe this story as magical, it is a wonderful addition to our collection, and one that both my son and I truly love.
In addition to a beautiful story though, this book does offer something else. The illustrations are all water colour painting and are described as being in the Traditional Chinese style. I know very little about art, but there is certainly a very Eastern feel to these paintings. I'm afraid I have no use at all for many modern artists. I like art that looks like something. These pictures certainly do look like real landscapes, people, and animals, but they have something more to them, it was as if the artist was able to capture the full range of human emotions and transmit it through his brush. Some scenes, like that of mountain peaks and a crane simply leave one in awe at the beauty. The despair of the villagers is clearly apparent as well, as is he kindness in the Ah Bao's expression The use of colour is perfect and the illustration of the Water dragon, the most beautiful of all.
My sons were both fascinated by the pictures, as was I. If I were wealthy enough to afford original art to grace my walls - and I were choosing to keep rather than to sell, I would choose a work from this artist even over Michelangelo's works. There is just something about them that gives a feeling of peace and beauty. I was so impressed with the artwork, that I bought a second story, Little Monkey King's Journey, and if anything this was even more beautiful than the first. Having fallen so in love with he illustrations, I asked my son if he wanted the third book: Snake Goddess Colors [sic] of the World, and as soon as he realised it would have the same type of pictures he jumped at the chance. I'm glad he did too, as I can't wait to see this myself. Reading these books seems almost like meditation, or time spent in the most beautiful garden imaginable. These stories have a lovely calming effect, making them perfect for bedtime stories, and as a lifelong suffer of insomnia, I've found something about these stories seems to help me fall asleep as well and just the other night, my son and I both fell asleep together with this book still in my hands between us.