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BETWEEN THE LINES

Taiwan author's modern fables teach kids to be themselves

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 September, 2013, 8:25pm

When it comes to tales about accepting and celebrating oneself, no one tells it better than Chen Chih-yuan. An author-illustrator in Taiwan, Chen created an international sensation when Guji Guji was translated into English. This beautifully written story of a "crocoduck" was an American Library Association Notable Children's Book and appeared on The New York Times bestseller list.

Chen's ink drawings in muted grey and brown tones belie the riotous antics of a crocodile adopted into a family of ducks. The crocodile grows up as a duck, but upon meeting some crocodiles and seeing how similar in appearance he is to them, he is torn about what and who he truly is.

Guji Guji has the makings of a classic modern fable. I can read it again and again without ever tiring of it.

For bilingual children, I recommend the Chinese-language version of this picture book, which includes an English translation and bilingual CD at the back.

In his author's notes, Chen explains that the story was inspired by a Korean friend who was adopted by an American family. Someone who looks different from family members and the community must first embrace or overlook those differences before he can expect others to do so.

In Chen's The Featherless Chicken, the protagonist is shunned by his feathered peers. He is finally invited to join a boat trip when bits and pieces stick to his muddy body like beautiful plumage. Everyone on the boat learns the "beauty is skin-deep" message when the boat capsizes.

Chen's latest offering, The Very Slow Snail, comes with an English translation and bilingual CD, and is a 2013 Feng Zikai Chinese Children's Picture Book Award honours book. The snail talks slowly and moves even more slowly. One day it decides to go to a grapevine to eat grapes.

Along the way, it encounters creatures that ridicule its quest, teasing that all the grapes will be gone by the time the slow snail reaches the vine. Only one creature encourages the snail - a caterpillar who thinks eating grapes is a great idea. The snail offers to piggyback the caterpillar, and their friendship grows on their journey.

This adorable and funny story about the beauty of taking things slowly is a good antidote for my daughter. Her natural disposition is that of a cautious observer who is slow to react. As a result, she hears "hurry up" and "quickly, quickly" countless times a day.

At home, we are always rushing to finish the morning routine and head to school. At school, she is constantly told to eat her lunch or finish her worksheets faster.

Rather than share a tale about the misfortunes that await dawdlers, I comfort my daughter with this story of a snail and a caterpillar who are content with their lack of speed.

The Very Slow Snail reminds us to savour a slower pace. It is a wonderful allegory for enjoying childhood and not rushing the process of growing up.

Annie Ho is board chairwoman of Bring Me a Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving children's literacy by reading aloud to them bringmeabook.org.hk

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