written by Tutu Dutta, illustrated by Martina Peluso
(Lantana Publishing, 2015)
Arohan is learning to play the flute but he desperately wants a guitar for his birthday so is unable to hide his disappointment when the last present he opens is still not a guitar but a flute from his Grandma. He is not particularly impressed when his mother tries to comfort him, explaining that it’s an heirloom, a special kind of flute called a xiao – to him it just looks like an ordinary bamboo flute.
However, when a few weeks later his parents are away, it falls to Arohan to summon all his courage and ingenuity to save his careless older brothers Shan and Rajuna from the coils (literally) of the Guardian of the Forest, who lives in the constantly rustling bamboo grove behind their house. Arohan remembers the story his mother told him of the magical phoenix Cendrawasih bringing dead trees to life – he had dismissed it as a fairy tale he was too old to hear, yet just maybe…? But how to call Cendrawasih when his xiao is lying in its box at home? The resourceful Arohan decides to make a bamboo flute for himself. Grandma had told him to play with his heart and that is exactly what he does, pouring his whole being and very real desperation into his music to summon Cendrawasih and rescue his brothers…
Each week I read a music-themed story with the five and six year olds in my section of a local children’s choir. They loved Phoenix Song so much, they insisted on reading it again the following week. (Fortunately it was still in my bag!) They empathised with Arohan’s yearning for a guitar and we talked about the instruments they play and want to play. They were intrigued by the Chinese xiao and loved getting their mouths around the new word, as well as ‘Cendrawasih’, calling out his name as soon as I turned the page to the glorious spread showing the phoenix’s arrival. They were intrigued by the vibrant, green bamboo forest (forests don’t look like that here; and bamboo is a brittle, yellow stick); and they were wide-eyed at the image of the green-hued Shan and Rajuna ‘swallowed up by the trees’ – that was the page that the children returned to when they picked the book up later. They thought Arohan was brave and clever to rescue his brothers, and they were unanimously relieved at the end that he wanted to carry on playing the flute after all.
There is a lightness of touch to Tutu Dutta’s writing – information and verisimilitude are woven deftly into the story, waiting to be picked out and talked about later but in no way detracting from the flow of the narrative. We learn, for example, that the story is set in Malaysia through the boys’ parents being away in Kuala Lumpur; and Arohan makes his flute from ‘one of the broken bamboo stems from the ground’, so there can be no issue of him upsetting the Guardian of the Forest as his brothers have. Illustrator Martina Pelluso captures the love that emanates from the story – at Arohan’s birthday party and the brothers’ reunion at the end, but also in the way the whole forest seems to embrace Arohan and his beautiful music.
Phoenix Song is a beautifully-crafted picture book that will have children gripped by its blend of music, magic and contemporary reality as they get right behind its young hero, whom they will completely take to their hearts.
Read author Tutu Dutta’s MWD article ‘A Rampai Bunga of Children’s Books from Malaysia‘, where she talks about her own books and highlights other children’s books from Malaysia.