Friday, June 26, 2009

Book Review: Cinderella from around the world

Wilson, Barbara Ker (retold by). WISHBONES: A FOLK TALE FROM CHINA. Ill. By Meilo So. New York: Bradbury Press, 1993. ISBN 0027931250.
According to the book jacket, this story is the oldest version of Cinderella. It has a motherless girl, a clueless but loving father, a wicked stepmother and stepsister, and a magical being that sends the heroine, Yeh Hsien, to the Cave Festival after her stepmother has made sure she stayed home. There is a lost slipper and a young king who searches for the slipper’s owner in order to marry her. Since this is an Oriental tale, though, the story varies slightly from the European version. The magical being that sends our heroine to the Cave Festival is not alive. Instead, it is the bones of Yeh Hsien’s pet fish which the stepmother killed for dinner, and Yeh Hsien fished out of the dungheap and wished upon (the “Wishbones” of the title). There is also an extra twist at the end. Instead of living happily ever after, Yeh Hsien’s husband uses up all the magic and the Wishbones stop granting wishes. Yeh Hsien and her husband bury the Wishbones in the beach where they are washed away into the sea, and the formulaic ending is “They have never been found to this day.”

From the very first lines, we know that this story took place “thousands of years ago,” and this is driven home when we learn that the people live in caves. The text and illustrations show a primitive society, with water drawn from “a mountain pool,” and Yeh Hsien being sent off “into the hills to gather herbs.” Transportation is by horse and wagon, even if the horses are decked out in finery. At the Cave Festival, Yeh Hsien is blinded by “the lights of a hundred lanterns.” All of these add up to a long ago time and place.

Meilo So’s illustrations add depth to the story, as we view the cave in which the family lives and the fine clothes of the stepmother and stepsister vs. the heroine’s patched and ragged jacket. So’s pictures of the magic Wishbones occur over and over, and in brilliant red and blue colors that jump off the page at us. On the very last page, not only does the text tell us that the Wishbones have lost their magic, but they have also lost their bright colors - the skeleton is only bleached white now.

This version of the age-old dispute between daughters and stepmothers has its normal assortment of archetypes. We have the innocent child, symbol of all that is good. We have the bully, symbol of all that holds us back from what we want or desire. Finally, we have the magical being, the Angel archetype, who answers our prayers or wishes (Meta Religion).

The story of Cinderella/Yeh Hsien has a global theme. If we live a good life, we will earn our reward despite what obstacles or people try to stop us. This universal theme is why so many diverse cultures have their own versions of a Cinderella story.

Dr. Judy Rowen (Children's Literature)
A Chinese folk tale, this is one of the oldest versions of the Cinderella story. Vibrant, colorful paintings enhance the story.

Jan Lieberman (Children's Literature)
This is a picture book version of the Chinese Cinderella. The title refers to the magic fish who is cruelly killed by Yeh Hsien's stepmother but the girl discovers that those bones will grant her every wish. The illustrations depict the text yet provide room for children's imagination. This is a good version for primary grades.

Horn Book (The Horn Book Guide, 1993)With the help of magic fishbones, Yeh Hsien, the Chinese Cinderella, dresses herself in finery to attend the Cave Festival. The inadvertent loss of her slipper results in her marrying the king. Rich in color, humor, and authentic details, So's brilliant illustrations give the old tale a refreshing and effective interpretation.
Show your students some other international versions of Cinderella. See if they can identify the common characters and elements in each story. Keep a chart or write their answers on the board for them to see as they go through the different versions.

Meta Religion. 2007. “A Gallery of Archetypes.” Accessed June 27, 2009 from

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