Tuesday, October 9

Little Eagle

Chen Jiang Hong
Enchanted Lion Books 2007
Originally published as Petit Aigle
Album l'Ecole des Loisirs 2003
translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick

In 15th century China Master Yang finds a boy half frozen in the snow. The boy's parents were killed by General Zhao so Master Yang decides to be the boy's guardian.

There appears to be nothing unusual about Master Yang until one night when the boy awakens and discovers Master practicing Eagle boxing, a school of Kung Fu. The boy observes his Master at his studies, studies and practices his every move, until one day when he finds the perfect opportunity to practice his newly acquired skills on some town bullies. When Master Yang catches the boy at this he is initially upset but decides to take the boy's enthusiasm to train him properly in the martial arts. And he renames him Little Eagle.

Ten years on and Little Eagle has become a master himself. One night General Zhao has come to get a mystical book of secrets that Master Yang possesses. The book contains all of Master Yang's knowledge, wisdom and fighting secrets, with it the General hopes to become the most unbeatable warrior around. Both Master Yang and Little Eagle do battle with the General and his men and handily send the army packing but at the cost of Master Yang's life. With his remaining breath and strength Master Yang confesses to Little Eagle "There is no book, it is all in you. May wisdom and abundance follow you. I will watch over you always."

The story is a fairly common one though it would be new to young boys who might benefit from the message. Underneath the fairly simple story there are questions of when and how to use (or not use) force, how to deal with anger and revenge, the passing of knowledge between generations, and the benefits of discipline. Master Yang knows the General wants his "book" and the boy might want his revenge for having lost his parents, yet for both they refuse to deal with the General until he comes to threaten them. Even then they do not act out of anger, only self-defense.

Yes, this is a picture book, a beautiful one that contains within it the vistas of an art house Kung Fu movie. The predominant color and tone is red and yet Hong keeps the feeling warm rather than angry. And when it comes time for battle the gentle pen and ink drawings hold their own, adding strength to the dynamic compositions.

Really, this book caught me off guard. Siting alongside other picture books it feels all rather mature, almost like an adult book had been mis-shelved. Going in I wouldn't have imagined this story being made accessible to an older picture book crowd, and like a perfectly executed slight-of-hand I'm still not certain how it was done.

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