John Rocco, author and illustrator of the recently-published children’s book Fu Finds The Way, contacted me a few weeks ago, alerting me to the existence of his book. After previewing the book on his website – including watching a trailer for it (When did books start having trailers?) – I really liked the look of it, and was quite interested to hold the actual book in my hands, so I bought a copy.
The author’s summary of the book:
“When young Fu is challenged to a duel by the warrior Chang, Fu panics. His only hope is that the Master will train him, just as he’s trained all the young warriors of the village. But instead of teaching Fu to fight, the Master teaches him…to pour tea.”
The artwork is every bit as wonderful as I expected it would be. Rocco used actual tea and tea leaf to stain his pages in part of the process of producing the illustrations, which lends a rich, soft look to them. His characters are expressive and interesting to look at, even the duck who the main character tries to trade to the Master in exchange for teaching him the art of combat. One of the the things I particularly like about the illustrations is the number of subtle details worked into them. The overall layout of the illustration and the texts is also very well done. In some places Rocco employs the use of frames to show a sequence of actions to nice effect, including one page with three panels that illuminate the caterpillar-through-butterfly metaphor used by the Master.
“I tried to apply these lessons while creating this book, (purpose, flow and patience). The artwork was created using pencil on paper and then adding color digitally. The stains were created by soaking watercolor paper in tea and tea leaves and then adding them to the paintings in Photoshop.”
– John Rocco
My favorite of the illustrations is probably one during the section where Fu discovers the qualities of the tea itself and begins to learn the practice of brewing it properly. In a playful transformation of scale (and reality), Fu and the duck are shown looking out from inside of the teapot, with the aforementioned caterpillar circling the rim and the Master peering in.
In spite of the overall charm of the book, it was impossible for me to ignore discrepancies in the portrayal of Gongfu tea preparation itself. There is an illustration showing the main character pouring directly from his teapot into a tasting cup, bypassing the aroma cup right next to it, and omitting a sharing pitcher, even though a sharing pitcher appears in one of the other pictures. There’s also an illustration that shows the tea master drinking from a tall, narrow cup that looks like an aroma cup as shown in the other pictures. (For a brief explanation of aroma cups and sharing pitchers, see steps 10-14.) Of course there are regional and personal differences within the practice of Gongfu Cha, but it’s not orthodox practice to have tea ware on the tea table that gets ignored altogether. I suspect that the author found one or more Gongfu Cha tea sets to use as models, but has not seen many demonstrations of how the different implements are actually brought into play.
There is also a conceptual problem that would have been avoided had the author held a deeper understanding of Gongfu Cha. As Fu is taught to brew tea he is told that he needs to learn the patience required to brew each “round” (infusion) of tea to produce identical cups of tea. This is contradictory to the essence of the Chinese tea ceremony. Each infusion will present very different aspects of the tea as it reveals its characteristics in the increased unfurling of the leaf and emergence of flavors into the water. The focus is on transformation and the distinctive qualities of the tea, not on manipulating the leaf to avoid awareness of change. The Master states correctly that the length of infusion must be modified, but the reason and results given are inaccurate.
I acknowledge that this level of criticism is a bit over-the-top for a children’s book. It would be like taking issue with a book in which there were an illustration of a kid wielding a drill affixed with a Phillips screwdriver bit aimed toward a lag bolt – a level of detail that many people would fail to recognize, but would plague people like me for a few minutes before we decided we were being too particular.
That said, I wish that Mr. Rocco had run drafts of his text and illustrations past at least one person well acquainted with Gongfu tea so that he could have gotten the details right. The inaccuracies do not compromise the book to the point of diminishing its charm or value, but it would only have taken a little bit of additional advisement from an expert or two to insure a greater level of authenticity.
Last month I brought the book with me when I was visiting family for Thanksgiving, which gave me the opportunity to expose it to real children. My six-year-old nephew enjoyed the book quite a bit. I didn’t get to have an extensive discussion with him about what he thought about it, but he told me he liked it after I read it to him. It’s also notable that he picked up the book and sat for quite some time reading it on his own, before I had even showed it to him or told him that I wanted his opinion.
The overarching messages of the book are good ones: that learning to focus on an artful task and resolving conflicts without physical violence are desirable goals. The ideas are expressed well within the context of the story in a way that seems it would be comprehensible to small people. And in the aggregate of tea-related books for children, this one stands out admirably for the absence of the omnipresent floral, frilly tea party line.