The Children's Book Compass

Cloud Tea Monkeys

Posted on: March 20, 2010

Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet & Elspeth Graham.  Illus. Juan Wijngaard. (2010).  Pages not numbered.   Candlewick Press. Grades 2 and up.  Fiction.

This exquisite book enthralls the reader with a poignant tale and luminous illustrations.  The story was inspired by tea-picking tales the authors found in the high mountain countries of the Himalayan region.  Young Tashi rises early every morning to accompany her mother to a tea plantation where women pick tea all day – “plucking the tender leaves and buds and tossing them over their shoulders into their big wicker baskets.”  While her mother works, Tashi plays with a group of monkeys.  When her mother becomes ill, Tashi carefully tends her but without income from the tea picking she knows that –

“If her mother did not get well, she could not work and there would be no money.  The problem went around and around.  It was like a snake with its tail in its mouth, and Tashi was frightened by it.”

Tashi resolves to help and somehow manages to drag and carry her mother’s heavy basket the long way to the plantation so she can pick the tea.  However, the Overseer stops her from picking because she is too small to reach the tender young tea leaves.  But then help comes from an unexpected source – the monkeys.  They take the basket high up in the mountains and return with it filled to the brim with a rare tea called cloud tea.  Just then the Royal Tea Taster arrives at the plantation in search of a fine tea for the Empress.  He buys the rare tea from Tashi and promises to return every year for more.  That gift from the monkeys provides income for Tashi and her mother who recovers with the services of a doctor.  The ending is most satisfying.

“There are only three people in the world who drink cloud tea.  One of them is a little old woman who is called the Empress of All the Known World and Other Parts That Have Not Been Discovered Yet.  The other two are a retired tea picker and her daughter, who live in a village among mountains whose tops are lost in clouds.”

This book is more than a picture book.  Each full page of text is accompanied by a full page framed,  jewel-toned illustration.  The illustrations extend the text with  details and expressive emotions of the characters.  The authors’ careful word choice paint a visual picture of details not in the illustrations – a  milk-white porcelain bowl is described as “so thin that Tashi could see the shadow of the man’s fingers through it:”   Read this book aloud more than once for the children to savor the story and pour over the illustrations.

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