Saturday, April 10, 2004

Young Minds, Ancient Wisdom

A review of Zen Tails by Peter Whitfield, illustrated by Nancy Bevington.

Published in Education Today, October 2004 

Zen Tails is a unique series of children’s books aimed at ages 5 - 8. It sets out to convey to young readers some of the profound wisdom contained in the vast store of traditional stories of the East. The Zen Tails are enacted by nine animal characters who are grouped into three group: the teachers, the students and the fools. The teachers (a St. Bernard, a wombat and a turtle representing action, love and knowledge) are the enlightened ones. The students (a beagle, a hippo and a beaver representing courage, compassion and studiousness) are striving to emulate them. The fools (a cat, a monkey and a bear representing laziness, agitation and anger) are living in selfish ignorance. In case you don’t get all this from reading the books, it’s spelt out for you on a three bookmarks which comes with the series.

Nancy Bevington’s illustrations are skilfully drawn watercolours. The washes are clean and crisp and the characters are full of personality. They avoid the sentimentality of so many animal picture books and yet they are attractive and appealing to a young audience.

The first story in the series, “Bruno Dreams of Ice Cream”, tells the story of Bruno (the beagle) who is fixated with the idea of getting an ice cream. When he is drawn into helping the beaver who is in a spot of bother, he forgets about his desire for an ice-cream and is freed from his desire.

The intention and structure of the series is very clear, but do the stories and the characters themselves achieve Whitfield’s purpose? One of the potential problems with this sort of approach is that the characters can be one-dimensional and unrealistic. After all, no one is sole an incarnation of anger and without any redeeming feature whatsoever. I decided to put one of the stories to the test. I read “Bruno Dreams of Ice Cream” to a group of seven year olds at my school and asked them to name the distinguishing feature of each character. I was surprised how well the children understood the story and connected with the characters.

One child said, “I liked how Bruno forgot about the ice cream when he helped his friend, and how the St Bernard watched everything from the top of the hill.”

Not bad. They described the cat as “mean and selfish”, the beagle as “kind and strong”, the monkey as “naughty” and the hippo as “sharing”.  No doubt the children’s understanding of the characters would develop further as they read the other books in the series.

Whitfield has undertaken a worthwhile task to make traditional stories available to today’s children in an attractive and simple form.  Too much modern children’s literature aims at the lowers common denominator. Books which concentrate on bodily functions, slime, mucus and other excretions try to appeal to youngsters’ obsession with these rather deprived aspects of human life and do nothing but reinforce children’s fascination with gross-out episodes and toilet humour. Children deserve better. It’s an insult to their intelligence to serve mundane literature up to them. The Zen Tails series aims high and appeals to the young philosopher which can be found in every child.  But children also love riveting plots with tension and drama and believable, humane protagonists with depth and substance. Books which can combine both will not only be successful, they will also add to the national character.

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