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Book Review: The Five Chinese Brothers

written by Claire Huchet Bishop and Illustrated by Kurt Wiese 


Plot Summary 
    The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Biship was one of my all time favorite stories growing up.  This story is a well-known Chinese folktale and therefore I would classify this story in the genre of folklore with fantasy elements because of the different "magical" elements within the story.  This is a story of five Chinese brothers who all look identical and all obtain a special talent.  The first brother could swallow the sea, the second had an iron neck, the third could stretch his legs, the fourth could not be burned, and the fifth could hold his breath indefinitely.  All of these talents become very important once the first brother is summoned to his  death.  He is summoned to the death of being beheaded, so he was sent home to bid his mother goodbye, his second brother returned.  When the executioner swung his sword to behead the second brother it did absolutely no damage for he has an iron neck.  He is then summoned to a death of drowning.  He is sent home to bid his mother good bye, and the third brother returns.  When the third brother is thrown into the sea he stretches his legs until his feet hit the bottom and he does not drown.  
     At this point the towns people are furious and summon him to a death of being burned alive.  The brother is sent home to bid his mother goodbye, the fourth brother returns.  He is tied to stakes and set on fire.  He shows no reaction and actually finds it quite pleasant, so they take him down.  He is then finally summoned to a death of being smothered.  He is sent home to bid his mother goodbye once more, and the fifth brother returns.  The executioner puts the brother into a large black oven that is stuffed with whipped cream and wait all night to see to it that he is finally put to rest.  The next morning the fifth brother is taken out unharmed.  After his fifth survival, the towns people now believe that he is innocent and he is released.  
     The reason I suggest that this children's book belongs in the fantasy genre is because a normal human could not obtain these certain talents, and that it is simply make believe.  However, I believe that it are these fantasy aspects that makes it such a great children's book.  Claire Huchet Bishop did a great job in producing such a memorable book.  For more on the author visit http://www.novelguide.com/a/discover/aww_01/aww_01_00101.html
Textual Elementshghgg
     The setting of The Five Chinese Brothers is in China, the time and year is not mentioned.  However, from the acts of execution of "beheading" I would assume that it is set some time ago.  As previously explained, the main characters of this story are the five Chinese brothers who all obtain their different talents.  The point of view of this story is through a narrator in third person. The story is not written in the sense where we are reading one of the character's inner thoughts but rather an outsider's perspective. I believe the main theme of this children's book was "escape from death".  It had a suspenseful storyline that would definitely keep children on their toes wanting to know what happens next.  The powerful connection between the brothers is also what made this book a classic.  The text used in this book was nothing special or "eye-catching" but rather just basic, black text that was very straightforward, as to not take away from the artistic appeal of the book. You can see an example of the font and size of the text in the image below. 
Artistic Elements
      The illustrations in this children's book were very attention grabbing and supplemented the story in a great way.  Without these pictures this story would not have been portrayed the same way and would have been quite boring.  Even though they were pretty simplistic illustrations I believe they fit perfectly within the authenticity of the story.  I would classify the artwork as folk art because is gives a broad designation for the artistic expression of the ethnic group. Here is an example of an illustration within the book  
The pictures also appear to have a "cartoon" aspect to it, meaning that it does not represent realistic  images.  The majority of the images also lay in front of a white background which also adds to the simplicity of the pictures which can also be seen in the example above. The color scheme is very basic, revolving around two basic colors of black and orange.  The illustrations also contain a certain texture that seems to be brush strokes on a canvas, which I believe also gives an authentic feel to it.  Another aspect of the pictures that I noticed was the lines.  As you can see from the example above there seems to be very bold, distinctive lines outlining the figure.  The placement of the text is nothing out of the ordinary, placed either on the bottom or top of the page as to not interfere with the picture on the page.  Here is an example of the picture-text placement.  Finally, the artistic/design elements of this book is the relationship of words with pictures.  Meaning, it is a complete story with both pictures and words.  The words indicate what to pay attention to and how to interpret what we see on the page.  On the other hand, the pictures can reflect and extend the text, provide a richer and broader context and give a visual quality. Without one or the other, the story would simply not be complete. 
Analysis and Critique
      One might think that there would not be any debatable aspects within a children's book, but I would argue this story had a few.  I believe that there are many hidden messages contained in this book and that  it could be considered controversial in the classroom.  The fact that each brother was sent to his death is related to the death penalty, something that is not discussed in the classroom or to children all together.  This could be a touchy topic for young students and even for teachers when deciding how to handle the topic.  A source stated, " The racial question felt like a non-issue but the whole drama of how the five brothers escape execution by using their magical abilities was very disturbing. I felt really uncomfortable having to discuss capital punishment with a four-year-old" (Murray).  This is a very good concept to bring to attention.  What will a child think when death is considered such a light topic in this story?  Even though the executions are not stressed in the book, it could be a touchy subject for children to wrap their minds around.  Another issue could be the fact that this story is portraying the Chinese culture, is it accurate?  We discussed a lot in class how many children's books do not accurately portray different ethnic groups, one of the reasons being that the author is simply not from that certain ethnic group.  Claire Huchet Bishop is an American who was born in France.  How credible can this book be if it was written by an American?  Did she use common Chinese stereotypes to guide the writing of this book?  This question about accuracy is a more recently raised issue and something that has been addressed a lot more seriously.  Regardless of these critiques and possible stereotypes, I believe that this is a great book for children and would definitely recommend it. 
Here is a youtube link of the complete story:


 Huchet-Bishop, Claire. The Five Chinese Brothers. Kurt Weise. Canada: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1938.
Murray, Kristy . "Five Chinese Brothers."Magic Casements . June 11, 2008. Web. 30 Nov 2010.      <http://magiccasements.blogspot.com/2008/06/when-i-was-in-canberra-last-month-i.html>.



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