Shen’s Books - Beautiful Stories From Far Away Places

Reviewed by Michael Leppert

Shen’s Books, owned and operated by author Renee Ting, is a Bay-area company that specializes in offering beautiful, high-quality Asian, East Indian, Latin American and Philippino “children’s” books to American readers. I qualify the word children’s because in reading these books, I am as enthralled at the engaging stories and gorgeous illustrations of Shen’s offerings as I would have been at 10 or 11.

As a child I was fascinated by tales from other countries -- Kipling’s The Jungle Book or The Story About Ping, for instance -- and as an adult, I have not lost my appreciation for the timeless beauty and peace that these tales from far-off lands -- possibly other times -- evoke. I willingly allow myself to be swept off to the Orient or India -- even Latin America -- which is more familiar to me, but nonetheless distant from my daily life, and find myself free of “time” for awhile, as my consciousness dwells within the pages! The fact that the United States is a melting pot of cultures makes it useful and entertaining for us to know about the fairy tales and stories of other countries and cultures. For instance, Shen’s Books offers numerous versions of the Cinderella tale from many different countries and even a single volume “In Search of Cinderella” (2003, $15.95) which is a curriculum study aid for ages 11 to 13, developed using the 12 different ethnic versions of this (obviously) universal love story offered in Shen’s Books’ catalog. It provides 64 pages of review and discussion of the story, vocabulary exercises with some of the other languages to English, and a connection to a single subject area. Using this volume can teach the concepts of critical reading and thinking with the central theme of Cinderella’s rise from poverty of spirit to fulfilling love and blessings for the people of the land.

Seeing how the versions of Cinderella differ and especially how they are the same, provides an insight into the reality that beneath our apparent outward differences, we humans are very similar to each other, after all -- we share the same general desires and goals of familial love, friendship, peace and prosperity. Having a broader view of the world helps create a more well-rounded individual -- child or adult! Three of the Cinderella variations are reviewed in this article. Shen’s offers not only time-proven tales, but contemporary multicultural books and special needs stories, as well. They also carry translations of Harry Potter books, into Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Spanish.

Since space does not permit an in-depth review of the huge number of beautiful books offered by Shen’s, I have chosen a few to whet your appetite and provide information about. Please visit Shen’s Books online and allow yourself the pleasure of obtaining their brightly-colored catalog and consider bringing some of these treasures into your world and home for your family and friends to enjoy many times over.

Pie-Biter or Comepasteles
(1998) by Ms. Ruthanne McCunn with illustrations by Mr. You-shang Tang.
11” x 9” hardcover, 32 pages, $16.95; recommended for ages 5-10 (but older for learning Spanish or English) [English/Chinese/Spanish]

This charming and very useful book is Ms. McCunn’s rendering of a true-life Chinese folk hero who became a legendary figure in California and then returned to China where his reputation seems to have flourished!

Hoi is a skinny Chinese young man who comes to the U.S. to work on laying the transcontinental railroad. Both his gnawing hunger and scrawniness are resolved when he discovers a taste for American pies -- especially Dutch apple, lemon and gooseberry. This earns him the nickname “Pie-biter” and he quickly gains weight and becomes very strong -- to the point of being a legend for his ability to perform feats of strength on behalf of his fellow workers. After the railroad is built, Hoi, using his ingenuity and ability to learn quickly, becomes a packer under the tutelage of Spanish Louis. A packer is one who operates a train of pack horses through the mountainous territories between the railroad drop-off points and the miners and others who need supplies and are far from the railroads. Hoi ran his packing operation for 15-20 years before he became lonely for his extended family and desired to have a wife and children of his own. He moved back to China, never to be heard from in the U.S. again, but people traveling from China brought word of excellent pie shops in various villages and towns that featured Hoi’s favorite pies from his days on the railroad!

While Pie-Biter is recommended for children 5-10 years of age, I think it is an excellent supplemental book for an English speaker who is studying Spanish or vice-versa. Because each page has parallel translations of English, Chinese and Spanish, the student of English or Spanish can folloAw and compare, in both languages, word-for-word, developing a functional understanding of the languages’ construction and vocabulary. Because it is a children’s book, the word choice is primarily simple, thus making it doubly valuable as a supplemental study aid.

The Magical Monkey King: Mischief in Heaven
(2004) by Ms. Ji-li Jiang, illustrated by Mr. Youshan Tang
8” x 8” paperback, $6.95; hardcover, $14.95; 124 pages ages 7-10

The Monkey King occupies a similar status among Chinese children as Coyote or Crow among Native American children of the Western U.S. He is the wise and joyful mischief-maker -- a jester and clown, but is also intelligent, brave and quick-witted, who helps his people in their times of need. In one of his adventures, he finds a wise sage who teaches him many magical skills, like being able to see for a thousand miles or how to remain young for centuries. The Monkey King learns some of these magic tricks but is banished from the Sage’s school for being foolish. This entertaining book provides many of Monkey King’s adventures and whets one’s appetite to discover more of them. The author states in her preface that these are only a few of the many stories of the Monkey King that exist. You and your children may appreciate the lessons taught through Monkey’s adventures and you may want to seek out more of them after reading this book.

Abadeha, The Philippine Cinderella
(2001) adapted by Ms. Myrna de la Paz, illustrated by Mr. Youshan Tang
8.5” x 10.5” hardcover, 32 pages, $16.95, ages 6-12

This well-known tale of a beautiful, star-crossed young woman who is mistreated by her jealous stepmother but is ultimately vindicated by fatefully becoming the bride of the prince of the island, is retold from the Philippine perspective, using the indigenous characters and concepts that were part of the archipelago nation before the colonization by Spanish and U.S. governments obliterated the native ways and practices. The text is refreshing and unique, providing a glimpse into a culture that is no more. Once again, Mr. Tang’s glowing illustrations enlighten the story set in a land of palm trees and the shimmering Pacific. Ms. de la Paz describes in the afterword how the behavior of the wicked stepmother was illustrated using conventions that were familiar to Philippino parents in the old times. This book will no doubt delight your young readers for many readings and bring a whiff of the far-off Philippino breeze into your lives.

Domatila: A Cinderella Tale from Mexico
adapted by Jewell Reinhart Coburn, illustrated by Connie McLennan; Available in English or Spanish, both hardcover, $16.95, ages 6-12

This is a tale in the category of “Cinderella” stories, and this one, too, has a twist -- the character who changes is Timoteo, the arrogant and spoiled wealthy son of the governor of Hidalgo, Mexico. He is transformed by the humble and spiritual Domatila, a rural, poor brick-maker who becomes a cook in his household. Domatila’s spiritual values come from the fact that throughout her upbringing, Domatila’s mother advised and admonished her to do “every task with care and always add a generous dash of love.” As anyone knows who practices such a habit, the results always show through and Domatila’s cooking does not fail to impress Timoteo and through a series of circumstances, he sets out to search for her, without knowing her name, possessing only a strip of distinctly-decorated leather from one of her sandals. This version of the story imparts a strong sense of family and the values of humility and industriousness.

The Prince’s Diary
by Ms. Renee Ting, illustrated by Ms. Elizabeth O. Dulemba
(2005) 8.5” x 10.5” hardcover, 32 pages, $16.95, ages 4-8

The last of Shen’s selections in my review is a creation of the owner herself, Ms. Renee Ting. Ms. Ting studied music at Harvard and has been writing and publishing children’s books for a number of years. (Besides her own talent as an author, I would add that her taste in books to publish is exquisite.) In writing this tome, Ms. Ting has taken the inspired approach of recounting the story from the Prince’s point of view! He confides to his diary what he thinks of the beautiful girl he has seen from afar and must call Cinderella, since he doesn’t know her name. He also writes his candid opinions of her wicked stepsisters and his private diary entries offer new insights into this oft-told, hopeful tale of true love and Fate. Be sure to include this excellent original tale in your reading gift list or must-haves for your little ones. -- MJL ■

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