Monday, 10 September 2012

A review of "Cloud Tea Monkeys", written by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham and illustrated by Juan Wijngaard

Hi there People in the Ether,

   Sorry for the silence; summer and various events got in the way lately.

   This is a sincere and serene tale inspired by legends from the Himalayas.

   Peet and Graham set their tale among the lady tea pickers on an Indian tea plantation - they live and work in the lower reaches of the mountains, gazing at the mystical clouds that hang over the upper peaks.

   A little girl, Tashi, accompanies her mother to work each day and steals away to be with a troupe of monkeys. When her mother becomes ill, Tashi thinks she will pick tea so that the doctor's bills can be paid. But the basket is bigger than she is, and the overseer is mean. Tashi seeks refuge with her simian friends, and while she weeps, they take the basket and disappear beyond the cloud into the upper reaches of the mountains. They return with a basket full of beautiful, unusual tea leaves. The imperious but gentle Royal Tea Taster happens by the plantation and is impressed with Tashi's haul - he knows the harvesters were monkeys and he knows the leaves are cloud tea, a very rare treasure. Thasi's miracle has arrived.

   The story is conjured in a beautiful, gentle, bewitchingly traditional tone - it's like a classical fairy tale or A Thousand and One Nights episode. Tashi is sweet and brave, and her monkey companions are full of character but never anthropomorphised. The writers have chosen tender phrases and descriptions of colours that are very evocative of the landscape and Imperial era.

   The illustrations are very vibrant, rich and enchanting. Wijngaard uses both oil artwork and line drawings to bring the plantation, the women and the animals to life in glorious rubies, emeralds and sapphires. I especially love the pencil sketches of the Tea Taster's various faces as he samples the cloud tea - looking "like a man who'd seen an angel".
   It's a pleasing package too - the designer has employed a very traditional page layout throughout with text and plate-like illustrations complimenting the traditional style of the story. The cover is moody and beautiful, and the paper is a lovely weight and a milky shade.

   So, ultimately, this is a longer, layered story, full of detailed descriptions and sophisticated turns of phrase, and would probably speak more to readers of six years and older.

   Thanks for reading,

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