HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Shen of the Sea: Chinese Stories for Children
Author: Arthur Bowie Chrisman
Illustrator: Else Hasselriis
Publisher: E. P. Dutton and Co. Inc., reprinted in 1968
ISBN-13: 978-0525392446 (Hardcover)
ISBN-10: 0525392440 (Hardcover)
ISBN-13: 978-0816720781 (Paperback)
ISBN-10: 0816720789 (Paperback)
Language level: 1
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Reading level: Ages 8 and up
Rating: **** 4 stars (GOOD)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Chrisman, Arthur Bowie. Shen of the Sea: Chinese Stories for Children (published in 1925 and reprinted in 1968 by E. P. Dutton and Co. Inc., a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, New York City, NY). Like some others, whenever I would see the name of this book, which won the Newbery Medal in 1926, I always assumed that it was about a young Chinese boy named Shen who lived near the ocean. However, Shen are spirits in Chinese folklore with domain over one element or another, often malevolent toward people. It is a series of fascinating Chinese stories, strong in clean, witty humor that is hard to find in today’s children’s books and rich in Chinese wisdom, in which the author has caught admirably the spirit of Chinese life and thought. Arthur Bowie Chrisman spent much time studying the history and literature of India and China. The stories are designed to give folk explanations for the development of various Chinese phenomena such as printing, chopsticks, gun powder, tea, the kite, and “China” plates.
The biggest complaint about the work is that it does not consist of authentic Chinese stories but tales that are written “in the Chinese style” by an American. However, to be fair, it does not claim to be actual Chinese folklore but was simply “inspired” by Chinese folklore. Others complain that it is racist and demeaning with its patronizing knock-offs, akin to performing in blackface. The politically correct, who wear their feelings on their sleeves and never seem to be able to find humor in any normal situation, would probably agree. However, those who like well-written Chinese stories and are willing to put aside any preconceived notions should enjoy the book. In fact, some of the stories may feel vaguely familiar as they are based on universal concepts that have been used many times and in many places to reveal hidden aspects of human nature.
Those who are concerned about elements of enchantment will want to know that references to sea demons, soothsaying, and astrology occur. There are also examples of obstinate and downright horridly disobedient little children, whose parents’ indulgence of them causes them to unintentionally “invent” things. However, if this is not a problem in the context of learning what ancient Chinese culture believed, Shen of the Sea will not only be sure to entertain middle-aged children but also give them a taste of old China. One reviewer wrote, “Although this book is 75 year old, it reads well because the stories are interesting and have a certain dynamism. Fans of dragons and demons in particular and Chinese folklore in general will be greatly pleased.”