Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China Review

Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China
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Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China ReviewLike film awards, book awards rarely go to an artist's best work. Usually if a picture book has won a Caldecott medal you can sift through the author and illustrator's other books and inevitably find something far more deserving. This is true of almost every author/illustrator, save one. Ed Young has had a varied and fabulous career. From his spectacular "Seven Blind Mice" to his insipid and poorly drawn "Turkey Girl" he's run the gamut from "Yippee!" to "Bleach!". But his Caldecott winning "Lon Po Po" falls squarely into the "Yippee!" category. To my mind, it is his best work. A stunning edition of the Chinese tale of Lon Po Po, this story weaves elements of Grimm Fairy Tales with "Little Red Riding Hood" and comes out swinging.
One day a mother leaves her three daughters to visit their grandmother on her birthday. Before she leaves she instructs the girls to lock the doors soundly after she is gone. The girls do so but a wily wolf has overheard that the mother will be leaving. The wolf disguises himself as an old woman and knocks on the door. When asked who he is, he responds that he is their grandmother (or "Po Po") come to stay with them. The children foolishly let the animal in and he quickly douses the lights. After many questions about the supposed grandmother's bushy tail and sharp claws the eldest and cleverest daughter catches sight of the wolf's snout and must find a way to save her sisters. Not only does she succeed, but she also finds a way to get rid of the wolf forever.
In the dedication of this book, Ed Young writes, "To all the wolves of the world for lending their good name as a tangible symbol for our darkness". This was written in part, I suspect, to appease the wolf lovers of the world. Much like the old fairy tales of European folklore, this tale has its fair share of violence. The wolf's end, for example, is a particularly nasty way to go. And because it has been created so realistically in this book, I suspect that there are probably some animal advocates who will take offense at his death. Nonetheless, we're not dealing with reality here, people. We're dealing with fairy tales and in these stories wolves are (as Young himself said) representative of our own evil.
The story is translated by Young himself and is done beautifully. The words in this tale sing. Yet even the best laid plotting can be undone by poor illustrations. In this particular case, you've nothing to fear because Young has bent over backwards to bring you absolute breathtaking beauty. Combining watercolors with pastels, the book is simultaneously gorgeous and frightening. It may take a couple readings, but if you look carefully in some of these pictures you will find wolf images hidden in the landscapes and backgrounds of a great many scenes. The first spread in this book is of the mother leaving her children. As she goes, the land beneath her feet is shaped like that of a wolf's nose, the cottage the eye of the animal. Often the pictures are separated into threes, giving the book a formal feeling. Finally, the pictures of the girls and their enemy are excellent. Sometimes the merest of glimpses of the wolf are scary enough to drill home what a threat he is. You really do feel scared for the children when they cuddle up with their supposed grandmother in bed, only to find her to be a hungry beastie.
The "Little Red Riding Hood" story is all well and good in and of itself, but it always lacked kick. "Lon Po Po" has more than kick. It has bite. It will enrapture small children and give them tangible forms for their darkest fears. It will hypnotize any reader, drawing them effortlessly into its deeply interesting story. Of all the Caldecott winning picture books of the last 15 years, this one is my favorite, hands down.
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