Education About Asia: Online Archives

“The Girl Who Wore Too Much A Folktale from Thailand” and “The Cat That Lived a Million Times”

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The Girl Who Wore
Too Much A Folktale from Thailand

Retold by Margaret Read MacDonald
with Thai text by Supaporn Vathanaprida
Illustrated by Yvonne Lebrun Davis
LITTLE ROCK, AR: AUGUST HOUSE LITTLEFOLK, 1998
32 PAGES
HARDCOVER: ISBN 0-87483-503-8

The Cat That Lived a
Million Times

By Sano Yoko (Illustrator)
Translated by Judith Carol Huffman
Introduction by James L. Huffman
HONOLULU: UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII, 1998
VI + 34 PAGES
HARDCOVER: ISBN 0-8248-2098-3

Reviewed by NAOMI STANDEN

 

These are two gently moralizing storybooks aimed at young children and new readers. The Girl Who Wore Too Much is a cautionary tale told by the Pu-Thai of northeastern Thai­land, in which a spoilt girl is so taken with the beauty of her clothes that she wears them all at once, is left behind by her friends when she collapses in the heat, and misses the dance. In the original she dies (shades of Hans Christian Ander­sen), but in this retelling she sur­vives to learn to appreciate the company of her forgiving friends and to take pleasure in one set of clothes at a time. The story deals with universal themes of vanity and friendship, but the narrative relies on the cultural context of monsoon Asia: it is the heat of Thailand that makes the girl’s collapse utterly believable. While obviously peddling a moral, this is conveyed with a light touch and considerable humor.

The illustrations contribute enormously to the story. Their bright colors convey the beauty of Thai silks such that we can understand the girl’s difficulty in choosing and so cannot help feeling some sympathy for her. In fact, the pictures tell us more about Thailand itself than the story does. They consciously depict modern Thailand, showing, for instance, the variety of Western and traditional clothes worn by contemporary Thais on different occasions, as well as the distinctive dress of the Pu-Thai. They also incorporate significant aspects of contemporary Thai society such as Chinese shopkeepers (again, distinguished by dress) and spirit houses. Thus, within the confines of a storybook, we are given an authentic picture of twenty-first-century Thailand, and not some exoticized version. A teacher could draw attention to these details and use them to start discussions on similarity and difference, and (with older children) historical development (Why are there Chinese people in Thailand? Why do Thai men dress that way? And so on). The Thai text is a great boon for introducing the idea that there are many different ways of writing, and it is a shame that there was not space to put it alongside the English instead of confining it to the bottom of the page. The youngest readers might enjoy following the cat from page to page.

The Cat That Lived a Million Times is a Japanese Buddhist tale about the repeated reincarnation of a self-centered feline, ending only when the cat stops being selfish and gives his love to another. Like The Girl Who Wore Too Much, this story has universal elements—love is better than selfishness—but here the reader really does need at least a basic understanding of Buddhist ideas for the full weight of the moral to become apparent (and it is interesting that the conclusion is distinctly Mahayana, rather than Theravada). The Introduction provides a brief outline, but most U.S. or European students would need further expla­nations of reincarnation and nirvana, so that the story might fit better in the middle of a curriculum unit than at the beginning. The watercolor illustrations are effective enough, but not culturally specific; this story is only coincidentally Japanese. The dust jacket, however, is a lovely example of the (Japanese?) papermaker’s art, and could prompt a discussion of its own.

Both books include useful explanations of the cultural context and point of the story, although the lay reader might appreciate more still, and teachers would need to supplement the information provided. Do these books educate about Asia, then? To get the most out of them, American or European children would undoubtedly need an informed adult to explain and to draw out the meanings and cultural specifics. Hence the books would probably be best used as part of a deeper exploration. The universal aspects of the stories could be seen as detracting from the project of understanding cultural specifics, but in fact the universals provide essential points of comparison for children to start relating what they read to their own lives. When children understand the ways in which they are similar to others, they are then in a much better position to enjoy their differences.

 

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