Feather is on a quest to find the bird she belongs to, but it is no easy journey. She is at the mercy of the elements, blown this way and that by the wind and, on calm days, forced to lie where she has fallen. The strong gusts bring her into contact with a wide variety of birds, including a kingfisher, a cuckoo, a heron and a flock of geese. On each encounter, Feather’s question is the same: ‘Am I yours?’ And so is the reply: ‘You are not mine’. As she fails time again to find belonging, you have to admire Feather’s quiet persistence to continue in her search.
In one joyous scene, Feather meets a warm-hearted skylark, who takes her flying high into the sky – something Feather has been longing for. But all comes crashing down on the next page as she watches a fierce hawk dive through the air towards her new friend (the reader is spared the gory details but it’s a terrible moment). Who wouldn’t be bereft of courage after that episode? What a relief, then, when Feather finds a happy home on terra firma at the end!
In this story, Cao Wenxuan portrays the unpredictability, challenges and brutality of everyday existence, as well as individual courage and determination to find a place in the world. Roger Mello’s illustrations breathe glorious life and colour into every page. I think they also serve to soften the story by emphasising the beauty of nature. The heron’s neck is a graceful, sinuous swirl of purple and grey; geese stretch out their wings across a double page spread. Mello also incorporates vases (including traditional Chinese blue-and-white vases) into his designs, which lend contrast and additional interest to the page. And, an abstract feather motif appears on each double spread – a reminder of the story’s main character and her quest.
This longer-style picture book has an unusual design: it is a slim landscape edition with pages of two different sizes, the wider ones held in place by a rigid jacket flap. The book is beautifully presented in every way, from the hardback cover to the glossy, brightly-coloured pages. I particularly like the way publisher Elsewhere Editions has given equal weighting to the author, illustrator and translator on the front cover and title page of the book. I also appreciated the chance to read more from Cao Wenxuan and Roger Mello on their inspiration for the story and illustrations – and the underlying message of the book – in their introductions to this edition.
Feather is a beautiful philosophical tale about the importance and challenges of searching for acceptance that will be enjoyed by children and adults alike.
Feather by Cao Wenxuan, illustrated by Roger Mello, translated by Chloe Garcia Roberts (Elsewhere Editions, 2017)
Cao Wenxuan is one of China’s best-known children’s authors and a professor of Chinese literature and children’s literature at Peking University. His works include the novels The Straw House and Bronze and Sunflower, which have sold millions of copies. In 2016 he received the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award.
Roger Mello is a prolific Brazilian illustrator, writer and playwright, who has published more than 100 books, including You Can’t Be Too Careful, a 2018 Batchelder Honour Book (US). He won the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2014. He lives and works in Rio Janeiro.
Chloe Garcia Roberts is a writer, editor and literary translator. She has translated a wide selection of verse by Chinese poet Li Shangyin and is also the author of the book of poetry The Reveal. She lives and works in Boston and is managing editor at Harvard Review.
You can read a lovely interview with Chloe Garcia Roberts about her translation of Feather on the Chinese Books for Young Readers blog.
This is an edited version of a post originally published on Planet Picture Book in October 2018.
Laura Taylor is the founder of world children’s literature blog Planet Picture Book. She is a small business copywriter, NAATI-certified translator of French into English and member of AUSIT. When she is not writing, she is reading and chasing after her two young children. She tweets regularly @plapibo and posts at www.planetpicturebook.com