Arohan wants a guitar for his birthday but his parents cannot afford one and he receives a flute instead. He is a talented player and, one day, his gift enables him to summon help for his brothers who have been swallowed up by the bamboo grove behind their home.
Folktales come alive in this contemporary picture book set in Malaysia and told from the perspective of a young boy, Arohan. On the very first page, we learn that the hill behind Arohan’s home is protected by a guardian spirit and that terrible things can happen to those who disturb the forest. Then, Arohan receives a flute for his birthday, but the xiao is “no ordinary flute”. Through the young boy’s mother we hear a Chinese legend about a man with a special gift for summoning the phoenix Cendrawasih by playing the xiao. The story does little to cheer 8-year-old Arohan, however. He is disappointed at receiving a flute instead of the guitar he longs for and dismisses the story as a childish fairy tale.
But he doesn’t talk of fairy tales a few weeks later when his older brothers enter the bamboo grove without showing due respect to its guardian spirit. Instead, Arohan is alarmed:
“Oh no, thought Arohan. They’re disturbing the forest!”
Unlike his brothers, he asks permission from the Guardian of the Forest to enter the bamboo grove. And we immediately see the difference his approach makes. While Arohan is able to freely enter the forest, his brothers have not fared so well. In the illustration, they look like moss-covered statues, frozen mid-action; vines have snaked around their heads and bodies imprisoning them amongst the bamboo.
Arohan’s response to their plight shows his deep love for his brothers – he immediately thinks of how he can release them from the forest. He remembers the fairy tale his mother told him about the phoenix bringing dead trees to life, only this time he puts his disbelief to one side. I love the way he then uses his initiative and creativity to fashion his very own xiao from a broken bamboo stem.
I also love the next section of this picture book, where Arohan pours his talent and his heart into his playing “and the entire forest echoed with his music.” In the accompanying illustration, the bamboo bends inwards in response to the sound of the xiao – it’s magical; I swear you can hear Arohan’s heartfelt melody in the artwork. And it’s preparing us for the next page – the glorious double spread heralding the arrival of Cendrawasih. With its elegant red and blue plumage, magnificent tail feathers, wings outstretched and head held high, the phoenix dominates the two pages. It has to be seen to be believed!
The phoenix works its special magic – brightly-coloured flowers appear in the green of the bamboo grove and the vines that had trapped Arohan’s brothers release their grip. Arohan doesn’t fill his brothers in on what happened; that’s our secret to share with him. But he does tell them he’s going to give the flute another chance. And who wouldn’t?!
The illustrations throughout the picture book are distinctive and appealing, from the earlier scenes where Martina Peluso lovingly depicts Arohan and his family in a soft colour palette, to the spectacularly vivid spreads of Cendrawasih and the bamboo grove.
Phoenix Song is a beautiful, gentle story about respect for nature, love for family, music, and the enduring magic of folktales.
Phoenix Song by Tutu Dutta, illustrated by Martina Peluso (Lantana Publishing, 2015)
Tutu Dutta is passionate about culture, folklore and children’s literature. She is the author of seven books, including Timeless Tales of Malaysia, a collection of legends and folktales adapted for children. She was born in India but grew up in Malaysia. She has also lived in Japan, France, Singapore, Nigeria, the United States and Cuba.
Martina Peluso has worked as a children’s book illustrator since 2006. Her artwork has also been displayed in personal and collective exhibitions. She studied print art at the Institute of Art in Naples. She was born in Naples, Italy where she currently lives and works.