Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Seeing Stick by Jane Yolen; illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini

This is a terrific read aloud. Students love how the color on the illustrations unfolds mirroring the blind girl's attempt to "see" with her fingers. The embossed pages are like Braille and it's so much fun seeing kids gape at the surprise ending. Hwei Ming is the emperor's daughter and was born blind. She is shown as being alone and isolated in the beginning of the story as people try to come from all over the country to cure her of her blindness. When an old man travels from a great distance with his Seeing Stick he opens the world up to Hwei Ming by teaching her to "see" through touching the people and objects around her.

Before reading I tell the grade 3 or 4 students to notice the color (or lack of color) and then stop to ask them to "turn and talk" about it on the page with the old man carrying The Seeing Stick, which is the first page with color. Why did the illustrator put color on this page? This introduces the themes and forces them to make connections between the art work and text.  One might be offended by the portrayal of Hwei Ming's blindness arguing it is a stereotype of a character with a disability who does not do "normal" activities such as playing with other children or exploring the palace. But I think her blindness is balanced by the old man who does lead a normal life and shows Hwei Ming how to "see" whereon she teaches other blind children the same lesson. The story ends with much hope and joy and the focus is on Hwei Ming and how she changes versus how she is blind. It is an opportunity to talk about characters with disabilities and how they are portrayed in literature.

The artwork is stunning. The illustrator uses traditional Chinese painting with patterned textures on the clothing. The long robes suggest the period of time to be from the Qing Dynasty that lasted for over 200 years. The brushwork is reminiscent of the calligraphy or ink paintings with monochromatic pictures and little, if any, color. The first page shows Hwei Ming's robe as being almost transparent, a reflection of her isolation or withdrawn nature. She's like a ghost in the palace. The illustrations that pour from the Seeing Stick change and look like folk art. The way they are designed with white outlines made me think of the famous Chinese paper cuts that have around since the 6th century. The women I work with who grew up in Taiwan said the Seeing Stick images reminded them of shadow puppetry.The borders resemble what is seen on walls and temples.

I think the story would have been even more powerful if the illustrator had used symbols from Chinese culture in her textures. For instance, Hwei Ming's flowered dress has what looks like a chrysanthemum design, but this is a flower given at funerals. If the magnolia flower had been used it represents sweetness and beauty which would have added a nice layer to an already well-told story and the tactile nature of the embossed paper. There was also strict codes of colors that only royalty could wear during the Qing Dynasty. While Terrazinni does have the emperor in a yellow robe the design is plain circles. It kind of looks like the sun and the emperor was recognized as, the son of heaven.The circle motif in Chinese art has many symbols such as prosperity, riches, the sacred disc and more. Too bad one of them wasn't slipped in the artwork. I thought about the famous emperor and his yellow robe that I have read in children's literature. Historically the dragon motif symbolized the emperor and is reflected in illustrations of court robes. It seems Terrazinni missed an opportunity with the cultural symbols, but it doesn't detract from the story. Not at all. The illustrations are a feast for the eyes. You'll definitely want this one for your library.

Reading Level 4.4
4 out of 5 Smileys

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