David Bouchard and Zhong-Yang Huang, The Mermaid's Muse: the Legend of the Dragon Boats (Raincoast, 2000)
David Bouchard and Zhong-Yang Huang, Dragon of Heaven: The Memoirs of the Last Empress of China (Raincoast, 2002)
David Bouchard and Allen Sapp, The Song Within My Heart (Raincoast, 2002)

I love childrens' picture books. There are few other places these days where you can find so many different artists showcased so beautifully without a steep price tag. I collect those painted by Laurel Long and Kinuko Craft for their lush elegant detailing, those by Paul Morin for his use of painterly strokes and carefully applied textures, those illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman for the strength of personality in her characters. And that's without taking into account the writers: Neil Gaiman, Virginia Hamilton, and Jane Yolen have all poured their immense talents into this field, among others. And of course, I have reams of Dr. Seuss, painstakingly re-collected after I foolishly decided to get rid of the childish things when I was in my early teens. I still haven't done the same for Maurice Sendak, but I keep thinking I ought to.

These three books most definitely make a lovely contribution, the more because, in spite of a common writer, and in two of the three, a common artist, they could hardly be more different.

The Mermaid's Muse is a Chinese folk tale. In the framing story, a modern grandmother is telling the story to her grandchild, to explain why, in the midst of modern name-brand toys, she has given him a wooden model of a dragon boat. Thankfully, this hint of "tradition is important even in the modern world" is left a hint, slyly noted in the illustration, and does not take over from the central story, of an exiled court poet who falls in love with the sea dragon, disguised as the titular mermaid. This is not a quiet love story, however, but a story of action, and passion, and deep misunderstanding. The setting is nicely realised in a few words, the characters are startling in their solidity.

The story is well told, but it was the illustrations that first caught my notice. The images by Zhong-Yang Huang are painterly, the figures well-realised, and the backgrounds stunningly impressionistic and full of life. The still blue of a moonlit evening on one page paints the exile's sorrow and the mermaid's attention. Herons and gulls fill the sky and the shore in one dawn scenario, as the poet proclaims his love. In later pages, waves thrash, villagers with spears are in dreadful motion, or sit stunned and grieved in their boats, all in blurred powerful brushstrokes, while in the foreground clearly etched men and dragons mingle with fiery skies. It's sheer beauty, and this may be the prettiest of the three books.

Yet in Dragon of Heaven, Zhong-Yang Huang paints near photorealistic images. He's no longer telling his part of the story by impression, but by sharp symbols, crisp records of historic people, and places, and items.

That approach works very well indeed. Dragon of Heaven is not a folktale, of a time and place slightly vague, or unhistorical. This is the story of a real figure from Chinese history, and a real time, the second half of the Nineteenth Century, and the start of the Twentieth.

The Mermaid's Muse is mostly told distantly, objectively, as most folk tales are told. Dragon of Heaven is told very personally from Empress Cixi's own point of view. This is not history through an objective eye, nor is it meant to be. This is a fictionalised record of a woman's life, the more vivid because it is in her voice, with her opinions, and her highly partisan attitudes towards those around her. Like a real autobiography, this woman may not always say what historians would want, but it's the more interesting for all that. Of course, there are essential touches for the reader, too; Bouchard alternates descriptions of events with descriptions of the life and culture in which she lives. The passage explaining eunuchs, and how they are made, is certainly an interesting, if somewhat gruesome example. (There is no specification on this book for what age the readers are assumed to be, but it is not for the youngest children.)

The objective details are given in the afterword, and they are rather more dry.

The paintings make an interesting counterpoint, because they do not always show scenes directly from the text. Sometimes they borrow a single line and make a symbolic image, sometimes they are based on an anecdote about the Empress that is only explained in the artist's notes afterwards. In some ways, this gives the whole a more historic feel; these are not the illustrations that go with a folk tale, but more like photographs borrowed form a private collection, catching the historic figure at leisure as well as in the midst of events.

Of course, they can be appreciated all on their own for their visual beauty (I've seen one for sale in a high-quality print gallery!). Yet the necessity to lock them down to solid places and people does make some of them less sparkling than the illustrations in The Mermaid's Muse. More, Mr Huang's artist notes at the end of the book are sometimes necessary to fully understand the connection to history, or even to the text. Other times, of course, the notes are just remarks about the details in the paintings, the real locations, or other minor trivia, and are more fun than necessary. Taken as a whole, with a main text, paintings, painting notes, and a historic overview, the book gives several facets of the life of the Empress Cixi, instead of one, and even several opinions of her. That, to me, is much the way history should be presented; and besides, it's well written, and very lovely to look upon.

The Song Within My Heart departs entirely in culture, style, and mood from either of the previous books, moving from China to North America, and the culture of the plains Cree. Like The Mermaid's Muse, there is a grandmother (nokum), talking to her grandson about their history and heritage; but where in The Mermaid's Muse that was a side detail and would have ruined the story to emphasize, here it is the core of the story, and thus it works.

The text of The Song Within My Heart is a poem, sometimes rhyming, sometimes just matching a steady rhythm, based on the illustrator, Allan Sapp, and his memories of his grandmother and of many pow-wows. On most pages, either a drumbeat or a chant is printed in paler text following the main words — in a couple of places, it becomes the main text for that page. When reading, I found after the first repetitions, I did not read the chants directly so much, but the eye was aware of them; this has the effect of a subliminal beat in places, and does colour the rest of the text. Probably the only way to read this aloud and have the impact of the visual rhythm is with two readers, one drumming and chanting behind the other.

The paintings, like those in Dragon of Heaven, show less the words in the text, alternating between scenes of the pow-wows, and scenes of the nokum's home, and other scraps of daily life. There is a strong sense of light here. Many of the images focus on the general shapes of things, on near-solid blocks of colour, drummers transformed into the shape of a cowboy hat and a shirt. Others, however, mark each seam in an aged face, shade cloth, pattern the walls with texture as well as the natural shadows. The figures, even the dancers, tend to be frozen, the sense of motion less in their shape and more in the paint-strokes surrounding them. Some scenes seem realistically composed, with proper perspective, others are skewed, with tiny children next to gargantuan drummers. All however, capture the feel of the scene, the way it would have looked and felt when remembered, more vividly than adherence to the rules of realistic art.

All three books, then, gained my appreciation in different ways for their use of artistic styles and effects, and different ways of combining with the text. David Bouchard impressed me with the range of styles in which he could write, and the elegant brevity of his words. Of course, the other consideration for children's picture books — would children like them?

Without any children, my own childhood is the only example close to hand. Of The Mermaid's Muse, I would say yes without much hesitation. I always liked folk stories, and endings that were almost tragic, and the ending of this one pulls joy out of tragedy. I'm less sure about The Song Within My Heart, but with the right storyteller, the book could be compelling; in the end, it is a lesson more than a story, and it's that much harder to make a child pause for a lesson. Still, the rhythm catches hold.

Dragon of Heaven is a strange book for children. The text seems like it would be best appreciated by those children almost too old for picture books. I know that I would probably have read it through in fascination. However, there's maturity in the writing, including Cixi's all too honest opinion of Westerners, and non-sexual part-nudity in a few of the pictures, that could turn away some parents, and some children not ready for it. So get it for yourself, and decide about the children later. It's a beautiful treat.

[Lenora Rose]