Have you been in the children's section of your bookstore recently? I know I don't normally wander through it as I don't have children in my life to buy stuff for. However, on occasion I've found my eye being caught by something spectacular and been reeled in like the proverbial fish on the line. Once entrapped I have a difficult time escaping without making a purchase, in fact I'm lucky to get out without burning holes in my credit card.
Children's books have really changed. Searching through my dusty memories of childhood, I've distinct memories of monochromatic pages occasionally alleviated by pastel washes of colour. Of course, the majority of books in those dark ages hailed from the British Isles and exotica were considered ancient Rudjard Kippling stories of "Inja". Elaborate and scary paintings of fear-stricken "natives" cowering behind the stalwart British soldier, facing down tigers and cobras were standard adornment no matter what the story; I suppose they were considered to embody all the virtues of the Empire, but I usually hoped the tiger would rip the soldiers throat out.
You only have to walk down one aisle to see the difference time can make for the better. I'm now surrounded by smiling faces of children from lands that I didn't even know existed when I was a child. Even better is the fact that these children either don't have to have any white children around to justify their existence, or they are teaching the little blond haired girl on the cover about their world. When I see that I feel like the world might have a chance and can forget for a moment that the majority of people still want to kill what they don't understand.
Thankfully, some adults don't think that way and are actively trying to teach the next generations to be like them. The adults who do that best draw upon their own traditions and tell the stories their people created for children. Most of the world's older cultures are replete with tales and adventures easily adapted into stories that can teach children about other people and places.
In Search Of The Thunder Dragon, written and illustrated by Sophie and Romio Shrestha, (published by Mandala Publishing and distributed in Canada by Publisher's Group Canada) is a beautiful example of this. The small Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, also known as the land of The Thunder Dragon, is the country being explored in this book.
When a young girl, Amber, travels to Bhutan with her father for the first time she learns about the Thunder Dragons, and together with her cousin sets out to find them. While the story is fun and exciting – who wouldn't want to ride on the back of a flying tiger and soar through the clouds with Thunder Dragons? – the manner in which the authors have been able to work in facts about life in Bhutan is equally well done.
For instance, we learn that Bhutanese people live in extended families because Amber stays with her cousin Tashi, who lives with his parents and grandparents. We also learn that elders are considered repositories of knowledge, because the first person Amber and Tashi ask about the Thunder Dragons is their grandfather. Throughout the whole quest little things like that come out in the story – without being shoved down anyone's throat.
That was probably the most pleasant surprise of all about this book – it was just a story. It doesn't insult the intelligence of its readers by assuming that everything has to be spelled out for them just because they are young, and it doesn't ruin the story by preaching a "message". One of the worst reactions to the children's literature of my day was when writers forgot that the whole idea behind story telling was to stimulate the imagination not deliver a sermon. A good story should give a child the right tools to figure things out on their own, not hit them over the head with a hammer.
The artwork in In Search Of The Thunder Dragon is spectacular, so it's not surprising to find out that co-author Romio Shrestha was born in Bhutan. as well as a world-renowned painter of traditional thankas; the sacred scrolls depicting scenes of wonder in the Buddhist faith. Samples of his work hang in museums around the world including The British Museum, The Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and the American Museum of Natural History. So not only is he eminently qualified to write about Bhutan, but you know that his illustrations are going to be culturally and ironically accurate.
This story was actually based on a trip Romio took to Bhutan with his eldest daughter Amber and the wonderful time she had there. This explains how the authors have been able to capture the child-eye's view their writing depicts so well. The sense of wonder that pervades the book reflects that viewpoint, and is a refreshing change from the cynical ways children are too often depicted in our media and culture. These aren't ten-year-old kids made to sound like miniature adults with the joy and wonder hammered out of them.
Perhaps that's not a very realistic view of our world, but who knows how children are in Bhutan. Anyway, this is a work of fiction and if the authors want to create a world where a child's eyes can still be opened wide in wonder, more power to them. The last thing children need in this world is more reality and they certainly could stand a little more enchantment.
If you're looking for a book to read to, and with your child, or even one that he or she could read on their own, In Search Of The Thunder Dragon would be perfect. It's beautifully illustrated with a straightforward narration that's understandable without being condescending. All in all the perfect book for people who have just started reading, or even those of us who've been reading for a while.
It's a really good thing I don't have to buy books like this for children –I wouldn't be able to give them up.