Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop, illustrated by Kurt Wiese

This is a good one. I dug it out last night and decided that its one of those that would be nice to have in hardcover. Written in 1938, it is easy to get a cheap edition (I think this one cost about four euros) and it was one of those Book Depository orders I did on a wet Wednesday morning just to treat myself. I had no idea it was so excellent. Like my last post, this is also one for kids who have a taste for the grim and gruesome.
Once upon a time there were Five Chinese Brothers and they all looked exactly alike. They lived with their mother in a little house not far from the sea.
The First Chinese Brother could swallow the sea.
The Second Chinese Brother had an iron neck.
The Third Chinese Brother could stretch and stretch and stretch his legs.
The Fourth Chinese Brother could not be burned.
And The Fifth Chinese Brother could hold his breath indefinitely.

I like it for the same reasons that I like Heckedy Peg and Strega Nona. Its has that traditional fairy tale feel(it is a retelling of an old Chinese tale) with grim characters, threats of death and wonderfully resourceful hero/ines. "Fairy Tale" is really quite a misleading title for the genre. 

It starts with a drowning. You see, the First Chinese Brother is going fishing. And he does this by sucking all the water in the sea into his mouth, gathering a few fish and then spitting the sea out again. But on this occasion a little boy asks to come along too. He is allowed to go as long as he does what he is told.
In goes the water.
And the little boy gets to play on the sea floor. So exciting!
But does he come out when he is called? What do you think? 
And the little boy who did not "obey promptly" drowns.

My kids were a bit surprised, its not something that happens often in their bedtime stories, but I read on. 

The First Chinese Brother was jailed and condemned to have his head cut off. (I know! And there's more!) He is granted permission to leave prison to say goodbye to his mother and his brother comes back to jail in his place. The one with the iron neck. The beheading doesn't go according to plan and it is decided that he will be drowned. He is again granted permission to go home and say goodbye to his mother and the third brother returns in his place. The one who cannot be drowned. See whats happening?
Nope, he doesn't drown..
and he doesn't burn..
and he doesn't suffocate in the oven.

And in the end they all live happily ever after. With their mother.

For ages four and up.

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