Steve Heron (text) and Benjamin Johnston (illustrator), Ling Li’s Lantern, Midnight Sun Publishing, September 2020, 32 pp., RRP $29.99 (hbk), ISBN 9781925227673
A champion of wellbeing for children, author Steve Heron is the founder of Nurture Works Foundation and developed the acclaimed ‘BUZ – Build Up Zone’ social and emotional programs and initiatives used in many schools throughout Western Australia. His first dabble with writing for children led to a series of six picture books in the ‘Feel Safe Feel Right Series.’ Ling Li’s Lantern is Steve’s first stand- alone picture book and a superb story of compassion, kindness, and the true nature of wisdom.
Suitable for children 5+, Heron’s insightful storytelling and Benjamin Johnston’s fastidiously composed illustrations draw young readers back in time to enjoy a delightful fable unfolding against the lush, green hills and terraced rice paddies of an unmistakably Chinese village.
Ling Li and her brothers are given a modest sum of money by their father Da Zhi and sent on a quest designed to nurture their wisdom. The first two children succeed in their task — one is particularly astute, the other clever — but Ling Li demonstrates the special wisdom of compassion and her father draws a connection between her kindness bringing light to the village and a lantern light filling a pagoda.
Although unmistakably influenced by traditional fables, Heron’s tale is refreshingly different. Unlike so many other examples of sibling folklore around the world, Ling Li’s Lantern does not focus on rivalry, power, or the usual outsmarting tactics. Rather it is a tale of surprising kindness and hope.
From the traditional Cormorant fishermen, architecturally perfect buildings and stylised landscapes, Benjamin Johnston has taken his inspiration from Chinese paintings of the Qing era and the author’s visit to the stunning Five Pagoda Wind and Rain Bridge in Chengyang, China. Undertaken entirely digitally, the illustrations bring the family and bustling market-place characters to life, grounding them in this authentic little village by a river.
Although unspoken in the story, the villagers seem to be preparing for a Chinese New Year Festival with food and craft stalls dominating the market. Lanterns feature in the patterned end pages of this picture book and are increasingly depicted in the second half of the story, their diffuse light bringing a hopeful, celebratory feel along with a touch of warmth at the end of the day.
The final glow of the sun faded as evening began to fall.
As Ling Li walked past the last few stalls, she heard a man calling out, ‘Lanterns for sale!’
A truly heart-warming story told with the utmost cultural sensitivity in a traditionally reserved style, Ling Li’s Lantern is a gloriously rich and inspirational picture book to share at home or with primary aged readers in the classroom. There are teacher’s notes available, offering creative literacy, critical thinking, and personal/social ideas for teachers to consider when sharing this text.
At the very core of this engaging tale is Ling Li’s kindness. Her simple acts are sure to resonate with every young reader.
Reviewed by Lisa Hoad