Sages of the sun

7th April 1995 at 01:00
Five Heavenly Emperors: Chinese Myths of Creation, By Song Nan Zhang. Tundra Pounds 7.99, 0 88776 338 3. Misoso Once Upon a Time Tales from Africa, By Verna Aardema Illustrated by Reynold Ruffins, Hamish Hamilton Pounds 12.99. 0 241 13488 9.

James Riordan discovers stories retold from Chinese and African mythology.

After graduating from the Beijing Institute of Fine Arts more than 30 years ago, Song Nan Zhang worked in China as a teacher and peasant before opting for Canada in 1989. With his first book published in the West in 1993, he won an award; he surely merits one for this book too.

Five Heavenly Emperors consists of 14 one-page stories about the gods; in themselves the myths are self-contained and retold in simple prose with no hint of translation snags. The tales are basically a guide to Who's Who in the Chinese heavens: who does what to whom and why. They also include an educative introduction to Chinese characters and words, as well as the eight divinatory symbols in the Taichi "Yang and Yin Map". Inevitably, squeezing so many complex myths into so few paragraphs produces as bewildering an impact as a multi-character Tolstoy novel.

What makes the book so attractive is Song's exquisite artwork inspired by ancient Chinese paintings and sculpture. Each of the 14 picture spreads is a genuine work of art, with filigree background detail depicted in delicate pastel shades; especially alluring are the jade and amethyst goddesses.

Song's art is a valuable new contribution to Western children's book illustration, following the "mighty handful" of artists from Russia, Hungary and elsewhere, nourished on strong basic training and extensive opportunity provided by communist states (albeit often for "artists in uniform"). It is to be hoped that commercial will not replace political censorship in their future work.

By contrast to Song, Misoso's creators present cultures that are not theirs. The book contains a dozen African tales from 11 countries south of the Sahara, interpreted by two eminent Americans. Verna Aardema is a past winner of the Caldecott Medal, while Reynold Ruffins is professor of art and ubiquitous illustrator. Such is the sensitive care which each provides in word and picture that, like wily shamans, they transcend the ancient oral telling within a circle of fire of an African night.

Aardema often relies on ditties, ideophones and onomatopoetic sounds to recreate the atmosphere of a play performed by an African storyteller-actor who imitates different human voices and the cries of animals, and involves the audience by clapping, clucking, chanting refrains (the secret of all good storytellers).

So meticulous is the reteller of this collection of tales that she precedes each of the stories with a glossary and follows it with an explanation of its ingredients - no doubt helpful to adults, but they are surely a mite intrusive for children. All the same, the map of Africa which shows the location of each story, and the bibliography, are to be welcomed. The illustrations are bright and breezy, bold and humorous, executed in pencil and acrylic paints.

Altogether, this is an educative and attractive book that is bound to nourish children's growing interest in Africa.

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