Fuse #8

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Review of the Day" Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin

First time book.
First time illustrator.
First time author.
Once in a while it's nice to see something absolutely new.

They say not to judge a book by its cover. Obviously this rule is true some of the time. Some of the time, however, the cover is EXACTLY what you need to see in order to judge a book correctly. How many times have you seen a cheaply produced cover on a children's picture book also to find the story inside laughably simplistic? More than once, I'd wager. By and large, however, I do not seek out books based on what their covers look like. Then I took a gander at "Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin" and my little heart went pitter-pat. Oh how pretty. We've all seen those picture books that show a small child getting to know some great artistic figure. There was "Beethoven Lives Upstairs", and "Degas and the Little Dancer" (which bears no small resemblance to this book), and the truly disturbing "Picasso and the Girl With the Ponytail". What drew me to "Little Sap" however was partly its content. I don't know how many Cambodian picture books you can recite off the top of your head, but my count is pretty low. Add to that the fact that the book talks about Rodin (oddly ignored by picture books, by and large) and you've got yourself the makings of something particularly good.

The royal dance troupe of Cambodia is recruiting new members from a number of girls around the country. Little Sap is from a small village, but despite her dirty nails and awkward balance the child wins a place on the court's troupe. That means unceasing practice and training. Over the years she gains confidence and poise and is allowed to go to France with the troupe to perform abroad. While there they attract the attention of the great artist Auguste Rodin. Drawn to the dancers (no pun intended), Rodin spends much of his time in the villa where they stay, sketching their moves. Little Sap in particular gets his attention and by the end of their stay in France he purchases a pair of fancy French shoes and gives her a sketch of herself. The back of the book includes an Author's Note that describes the facts behind the story and what is and isn't true.

Rendered in ink, watercolor, acrylic, and paper collage the illustrations done by first-time picture book artist Felicia Hoshino are quite pleasant. Hoshino's girls wear silk sampot, or pantaloons, which let the girls look as if they're wearing slightly baggy pants all the time. This accurate detail has a dual purpose. On the one hand it means that the book is historically and culturally appropriate. On the other, it means that the girls in this book look particularly familiar to today's jean-shod young lasses. The style Hoshino uses here tends towards odd proportions in characters. Feet tend to be particularly small and heads particularly large. Just the same, this technique never strikes the reader as out of place. It's simply a different style.

Lord is careful to note at the back of her book that Little Sap's story is, for the most part, made up. There are elements to it, however, that were true. One thing I noticed in a photograph displayed of Rodin watching a dancer was that the performer is wearing a costume far more elaborate than any pictured in the book. During the professional dance of Robam Makaw the costumes are made evident, but we never get a scene similar to the one in the photo. One has to wonder why this is. Why, for example, did artist Felicia Hoshino choose to include plenty of scenes where the girls dance for Rodin, but not one where they are dressed up? Still, there was much to enjoy in this book. I was particularly pleased that Lord thought to include some of the hand motions mastered for the purpose of the dance. And though there isn't an official Bibliography at the back, a quick gander at the publication page shows the books, videos, and websites that Lord and Hoshino owe their aid to.

There are plenty of child-influences-great-artist type books out there, but by and large they are of white children with white artists. You'll still have the white artist in this book, but at least there's a bit of multiculturalism going on as well. You may be able to find Cambodian folktales in your local library, but not many will be stories based on real life occurrences involving the Khmer empire. A lovely little book and a nice story to boot.

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