Press Interviews

The beauty of 'A Gift'

Sarah M. Earle writes for the Concord Monitor
Sunday, February 7, 2010

With varying degrees of sincerity, many of us grown-ups will tell our significant others we don’t need presents for Valentine’s Day next week.

Money can’t buy love, and all I need is you and blah, blah, blah (but my ring finger is a size 5, just in case you were wondering).

Our children engage in no such games. They want gifts, darn it, and they aren’t afraid to say so. They want teddy bears and puppy dogs and video games and chocolate hearts and action figures and comic books and the keys to the car and cute little T-shirts stamped with glittery pink letters proclaiming to all the world how sweet and adorable and well-loved they are.

Oh, they want us to spend time with them and to hug them and listen to them and laugh with them and all of those invaluable gestures. But they still want things.

And let’s face it, all those obnoxious jewelry advertisements aside, there is something kind of beautiful about giving and receiving a gift.

Nashua artist Yong Chen expertly captures that beauty in a book titled just that: “A Gift.” The sparely written, lavishly illustrated book, published last September, tells the story of a young Chinese-American girl who receives a package from her relatives living on the other side of the world, in rural China. It’s set during Chinese New Year, which this year happens to fall on Valentine’s Day.

Rather than cramming the book full of information about the holiday, Chen, who grew up in China and now teaches at the Massachusetts College of Art, opts simply to whet young appetites.

He draws in his audience with the image of a mailman delivering a package to little Amy’s door and fills his pages with small tastes of Chinese culture, from the exotic-looking foods in the family’s kitchen to the Buddha statue in the front yard to the impossibly intricate Chinese characters on the letter that accompanies the gift (preschoolers and kindergarteners learning to form the English alphabet will be duly impressed).

Readers also travel to China to learn the story behind the gift. We see a farmer working his field with a team of oxen and villagers in coolie hats traveling along waterways, and we witness the quiet, painstaking effort with which Amy’s uncle carves a dragon out of the stone his brother unearthed in the field.

For those whose curiosity is piqued by the tale, there’s also a one-page author’s note at the end of the book explaining Chinese New Year and its significance.

“A Gift” is the first book Chen has authored after illustrating numerous children’s books and magazine articles for other writers. On his Web site, he talks of his desire to share his culture and heritage with American children, as well as the thousands of Chinese children living in the United States.

He also wanted the book to tell a simple tale of family love that endures across oceans and continents. His bright watercolors effectively convey that warmth.

My daughter Katie’s favorite picture was the closing image of mother and daughter snuggled together admiring the new necklace. She said she liked it because the mother was happy for the girl even though she didn’t get a present herself. Right.