Feather is searching for the bird she belongs to. She is blown by the wind and rejected by many birds before finding her true home.
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 in the grass or leaves where she has fallen. The strong gusts do bring her into contact with a wide variety of birds – a kingfisher, a cuckoo, a heron and a flock of geese to name a few. On each encounter, Feather’s question is the same: ‘Am I yours?’ and so is the reply: ‘You are not mine’, like a refrain running through the story. The birds she meets are often so focused on their own activities that they initially ignore her query, or in the case of the peacock, are rude and dismissive. You have to admire Feather’s quiet persistence as she fails time and again to find the bird to which she belongs, but continues her search nonetheless.
In one joyous scene, Feather does meet 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!
This is not just a story about the natural world; Cao Wenxuan portrays the unpredictability, challenges and brutality of everyday existence. As he states in the introduction to this longer-style picture book:
‘In fact, Feather’s journey of riding the wind, her journey of questioning, is really the human journey of searching for a sense of belonging.’
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 and art. The heron’s neck is a graceful, sinuous swirl of purple and grey; geese stretch out their wings across the double page spread; the peacock looks supercilious, yes, but its multicoloured plumage is magnificent. Mello also incorporates vases into his designs, which lend contrast and additional interest to the page. Sometimes, these are shown as simple repeated shapes filled with solid colour; in other illustrations, birds are depicted on traditional blue-and-white Chinese vases. And, the abstract feather motif appears on each double spread – a reminder of the story’s main character.
The book is 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. It 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.