Chee-Lin: A Giraffe’s Journey
Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
Author-illustrator James Rumford, a masterful artist and storyteller, has based his latest picture book, Chee-Lin, on Chinese 15th century poet Shen Du’s painting of and poem about a giraffe. From the poet and sparse contemporaneous information, Rumford imagines the long-ago journey of Tweega (Swahili for giraffe) from Africa to Bengal to Nanjing to Peking.
A prologue, illustrated by Shen Du’s painting, reports that the giraffe was recognized in China as a manifestation of the mythical chee-lin, a “horned beast with the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, and the hooves of a horse. Whenever the emperor was good and wise and the people content, there appeared a chee-lin.” The only chee-lin heretofore in Chinese history, we are told, appeared at the birth of Confucius.
Rumford’s titled and boxed text with facing page illustrations takes Tweega from his infancy, teetering six feet tall beside his mother, to his capture and many travels as he grows to fourteen feet at age three and twenty feet at age eight. A series of caregivers – Tall-boy, Old Man, and Whispering Girl – treat him with kindness, but he is cruelly mishandled by Salt Man (who is later reprimanded by superiors). Tweega endures difficult conditions on long sea voyages. An Indian Sultan appreciates him as camel-ox-leopard, a “marvel of creation.” For most of his life, however, he lives in spacious Chinese parks, revered for his auspicious presence. In old age, at twenty-six, he mysteriously disappears. Everyone agrees that the chee-lin must have gone into hiding, since if he’d left by a gate left accidentally open, “surely someone would have spotted a tall-necked beast roaming the streets of Peking… He’ll be back one day, a sign of happiness and good fortune for all.”
A marvelous map of Tweega’s journey follows the story, as does an author’s note explaining his sources, the method used for his delicate, tender illustrations (an ancient casein technique), and his computer-designed text backgrounds, inspired by African, Persian, Indian and Chinese motifs. Shen Du’s poem is quoted in English and in Rumford’s own Chinese calligraphy. Already a multiple award winner, James Rumford renders Tweega’s world with fresh, exotic images and ideas for children of all ages. Chee-lin is superb.