Week-end Book Review: Painting out the Stars by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, illustrated by Michael Foreman

Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, illustrated by Michael Foreman,
Painting out the Stars
Walker Books, 2011.

Ages 8-11

Three magical stories make up this beautifully presented middle-grade book: “The Mysterious Traveller”, “Night Sky Dragons”, and “Cloud Tea Monkeys”, from which the collection takes its name. Set in unspecified times and countries, they transport readers to the desert, the steppe and a tea plantation respectively.  What links them is that they all hinge on inter-generational relationships that will resonate with today’s young readers.

“There were five riders but six camels, travelling fast.  Desperately fast.” So opens the first story, “The Mysterious Traveller”.  The sixth camel and his precious cargo, a baby girl with a mysterious necklace, are the only survivors following a sandstorm.  She is found and adopted by Issa, the most respected guide locally, who calls her Mariamma and teaches her all he knows.  The years pass and Issa goes blind, but is still the best guide in the area, with Mariamma’s help.  Their lives could have continued along this path, had not some strangers required a guide to take them safely over the mountains…

In “Night Sky Dragons”, young Yazul would rather make kites with his grandfather than follow the path of travel and trade, business and money that his father advocates.  He is fond of mischief too, and one day his antics cause untold, if unintentional damage.  Yazul despairs that not only will his father never love him, but he’ll never again feel the happiness of flying kites – but when bandits lay siege to their fortified han, Yazul has an idea to save them that could just reconcile both…

In the last of the three stories, a tea-picker falls ill.  Her daughter Tashi understands the grinding wheel of poverty: no work, no money, no medicine.  “The problem went round and round.  It was like a snake with its tail in its mouth and Tashi was frightened by it.” She tries unsuccessfully to pick the tea herself.  Despairing, she seeks out the shady spot where she has always shared her lunch with a large monkey family, little realising that they will now repay her kindness and friendship in the most extraordinary way…

It is perhaps no surprise that “Cloud Tea Monkeys” has previously been published as an acclaimed picture-book (illustrated by Jean Wijngaard), and that there are similar plans for the other two stories.  Michael Foreman’s black and white illustrations accompanying this edition are charming and add atmosphere, deftly conveying the atmosphere of each story, including the underlying humor in “Cloud Tea Monkeys”.  Readers of these great stories will find themselves cheering on the protagonists, while feeling complicit in the storyline by being able to anticipate enough, though not all, of each ending.  While the atmospheric description and details beg to be read aloud, the depth of characterisation and the relationships explored make this just the kind of book that independent readers will want to pick up again and again.

Marjorie Coughlan
December 2011


2 Responses to “Week-end Book Review: Painting out the Stars by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, illustrated by Michael Foreman”

  1. sandhya Says:

    We loved Mal Peet’s ‘Cloud Tea Monkeys’, and would love to read the other stories in this book. Thanks for the pointer.

    http://www.saffrontree.org/2010/09/cloud-tea-monkeys.html

  2. choxbox Says:

    Got this book, my kids and I loved it and are relishing it over and over. The review above does complete justice to the book. Thanks for the pointer (via Sandhya)!