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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Crouching Tiger, written by Ying Chang Compestine and illustrated by Yan Nascimbene. Candlewick, Random House. 2011. $19.00 ages 5 and up

"I meditated every day and practiced the cat walk while holding the pole up high. I kept hoping Grandpa would teach me to whack things with the pole. But by the time New Year's came, I still hadn't gotten to hit anything."

I was delighted to see this story that celebrates the Chinese New Year, as well as the martial art known as tai chi. Celebrations were held this past weekend and many people were in attendance to learn about the Chinese culture. And, my friend practices the discipline of tai chi weekly to improve mobility and because she has come to enjoy it immensely. So, I read it with personal interest beyond the warm and inviting story it tells.

Vinson is intrigued by his visiting grandfather's morning ritual:

"..., Grandpa was dancing slowly in the garden with his eyes closed. His hands moved like gliding birds. He crouched like a tiger; he drew an invisible bow; he lifted a foot like a rooster and stood still."

When he learns that tai chi is a martial art, Vinson is thrilled. He imagines himself a kung fu artist, with a little help from Grandpa. Unfortunately, when the training begins in earnest, it has none of the flash and panache that Vinson has been expecting. Rather, Grandpa shows him standing meditation. What? Just stand, hold an invisible balloon, and breathe? It is not at all what Vinson had in mind.

As the weeks pass, Vinson becomes even less enamored of the seemingly simple work Grandpa is encouraging. Things change dramatically when he sees how his grandfather uses his skills to protect a young woman from being hit with a flat board, and when he goes with Grandpa to celebrate the Chinese New Year at the annual parade. Grandpa has been training the lion dancers; and, in his visits to Chinatown, he has been singing the praises of his grandson. Vinson feels welcome and very proud when he is asked to take his part in the dragon dance:

"The martial artists led the way. They leaped and whirled about with spears, swords, and other weapons. Grandpa signaled and I marched off, focusing on keeping the cabbage just out of the lions' reach."

The exquisitely detailed, yet contemplative, illustrations have all the grace and peace of the practice of tai chi. On one side of each double page spread is the text and a small captioned demonstration of the positions that Vinson is mastering. Facing that is the warm and lively ink and watercolor artwork that shows a young boy learning about, and from, his patient and revered grandfather.

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