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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Story of Chopsticks, Noodles, Kites, Paper

story of chopsticks by Ying Chang Compestine book review Saffron treeThe Story of Chopsticks,
The Story of Noodles,
The Story of Kites,
The Story of Paper

by Ying Chang Compestine
illustrated by YongSheng Xuan

Ages 4-8

Chopsticks and Noodles, we easily associate with China. Kite? Maybe. Paper? Possibly, not readily. But, these four items did indeed originate in China and the author proceeds to tell us about it through an imaginative yet believable tale involving three young rambunctious boys of the Kang family.

Our introduction to the Kang boys starts with The Story of Chopsticks.

A long time ago, in a small village in China, lived the Kang family - Mama, Papa, and the three boys Pan, Ting and Kùai. In those days, people ate with their hands, no cutlery.

Poor Kùai never got to eat much as by the time the food was cool enough for him to handle, his older brothers have wolfed down a major share leaving him with scraps. Kùai had to find a quick and easy way to get the hot delicious food first or remain hungry.

The story goes that Kùai picked two small kindling sticks by the stove, used them as mini spears to jab into hot chicken legs and steaming sweet potatoes, and proceeded to eat them with relish not worrying about burning his fingers, while his family was still washing up for the meal.

Of course, this left my daughter wondering how the food didn't burn his mouth, but, this is a fanciful tale, so not everything has to fit our sense of reality.

It doesn't end there... this imaginative tale goes on to relate how the village wise man, Mr. Lee, got word of this new "Kùai zi" (KHWY-zzuh in Mandarin Chinese) or "quick sticks", declared it a useful invention, and proceeded to establish simple rules for using them properly. He then sent a report to the emperor, who, fortunately, liked eating with it. Before long, everybody in all parts of China wanted to use these "Kùai zi", and with traders substituting "chop" for "quick", we now have Chopsticks.

The story unfolds rather plainly. I found it rather wordy but my five-year-old enjoyed every bit of it.

What attracted me first was the illustrations: they have a stark, stained-glass-style feel, with bright colors and dark lines, making it hard to believe that it was all cut-paper collage work.

Author's Note at the back gives a brief history of Chopsticks and the proper way to use them, plus a recipe for Sweet Eight Treasures Rice Pudding, which I hope to try soon.

In The Story of Noodles, we meet the Kang boys again. This time, while helping their mom make rice dumplings for the annual cooking contest, they accidentally cut the dough into long strips. Rather than being horrified, the resourceful boys tell their mom that they've invented a new dish and proceed to show her how to roll these strips (aka Noodles) around the chopsticks and eat them.

Author's note mentions that Noodles originated in China and is considered an invention of the common people; from there Marco Polo introduced it to Italy; and from there it spread to the whole Western World.

Slurping noises are allowed when eating the noodles, the louder the noise, the more delicious the meal supposedly is. This fact amused my daughter who has been learning to eat as quietly as possible. Plus, there is also a recipe for Long-Life Noodles, at the back, which I have tried and must say is delicious.

story of paper by Ying Chang Compestine book review Saffron treeThe other two books in this series, The Story of Kites and The Story of Paper are along similar lines, with some brief history/facts/useful information at the back.

In The Story of Kites, the Kang boys try to find a way to scare the birds away from the rice fields without exerting themselves too much by making these elaborate and colorful kites. Among the few books we have read that speculate on the origin of kites, the story in this book seems lively and fun to read.

Since we've tried "making" paper at home, my daughter related very well to The Story of Paper: "Oh, so that's how the first paper was made!" she exclaimed after we read the book.

As usual, the Kang boys are credited with the invention of paper in the book: while not quite a serendipitous accident like the Noodles, their motivation to make something that their teacher could write on, and the resourcefulness to adapt available tools and techniques to produce results, make it an interesting tale.

While the facts are probably distorted in this presentation, the idea that each of these items that we take for granted today didn't exist until someone invented it, and the fact that they all originated in China, plus a plausible suggestion of how it might have come about seems to have impressed upon the five-year-old. And I like the simple way in which the books have managed to achieve this. All in all, a delightful, entertaining, and fairly instructive set of books with beautiful illustrations.

[cross posted at Saffron Tree]

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