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Silk Umbrellas

Silk Umbrellas

5.0 1
by Carolyn Marsden, Gabi Swiatkowska (Illustrator)

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With spare, sure strokes evoking the customs and language of Thailand, the acclaimed author of THE GOLD-THREADED DRESS tells the graceful tale of a young artist’s coming of age.

"Your trembling is good, Noi," said Kun Ya. "That’s the way the butterfly moves. Let the movement spread to your whole body, not just your fingers. Paint


With spare, sure strokes evoking the customs and language of Thailand, the acclaimed author of THE GOLD-THREADED DRESS tells the graceful tale of a young artist’s coming of age.

"Your trembling is good, Noi," said Kun Ya. "That’s the way the butterfly moves. Let the movement spread to your whole body, not just your fingers. Paint with all of you. Become the butterfly."

Eleven-year-old Noi is learning to paint like her grandmother. She and her older sister, Ting, spend many rapt hours in the jungle watching as Kun Ya paints delicate silk umbrellas to sell at the market. But one day Kun Ma and Kun Pa announce that Ting must start working at a local radio factory to help support the family. As the days and weeks pass, Noi anxiously sees her own fate reflected in her sister’s constricting world. Can Noi find a way to master her fear of failure and stand up for her gift — and Kun Ya’s tradition — before the future masters her?

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Set in northern Thailand, Marsden's (The Gold-Threaded Dress) graceful, compact novel centers on an 11-year-old who delights in helping her grandmother paint jungle-inspired designs on silk umbrellas to sell at market. Noi, accustomed to contributing only minor details to the artwork, trembles when her grandmother instructs her to paint a butterfly on the silk, advising, "Paint with all of you. Become the butterfly." Since the land Noi's father once farmed was sold to a developer, he now, ironically, lays bricks for the houses that will fill his former farmland. The family barely gets by with his part-time income, that from the silk umbrellas, and the mosquito nets Noi's mother stitches. Then Noi's mother signs up Noi's 15-year-old sister, Ting, to work in a factory making radios-a tedious, joyless task. Marsden laces her lyrical passages with effective imagery: when Noi's grandmother protests Ting's factory work, their mother says, " `Without [Ting's] work, we don't have enough.' Her words sounded like coins being counted out one by one." The creative, free-spirited Noi holds out hope that her umbrella painting may be her salvation from a fate like her sister's. The author captures the exotic smells, tastes and sounds that define Noi's world and shapes an equally affecting portrait of a family coping with the changes thrust upon it. Ages 8-12. (Mar.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
Noi is happy with her life in Thailand, happy to live with her family and help her grandmother paint and sell beautiful umbrellas, but that life is shattered when the farmland is sold to developers and her father loses his job. With money scarce and resources disappearing, Noi’s sister Ting is sent to work in a radio factory. Noi knows this work is dangerous and is very upset when she takes lunch to Ting and sees how hard the work is. Noi also realizes the factory is her likely destination as well, but Noi has other plans. As her grandmother’s health fades, she takes over the painting of the umbrellas, dreaming of selling her own creations, but can she succeed at the market? Is her work good enough to command a good price? Or will she end up at the factory as well? The language is lyrical, and readers will find themselves immersed in the culture and lives of the characters. Marsden includes a glossary of unfamiliar terms to help readers understand intricacies of the characters’ lives. Reviewer: Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger
School Library Journal
Gr 3-6-Noi, 11, lives in a small village in Thailand with her parents, her grandmother, and her older sister. Her carefree life, filled with family and school, is changing as farmland is sold to developers, costing her father his job. Money is scarce, and the girl is stunned when Ting is sent to work in a factory. Her horror grows when she visits her sister at her job one day and realizes that this might be her destiny as well. Noi, however, has other plans. She has been helping her grandmother, who paints silk umbrellas to sell at the market and knows that she has a talent. The interaction between Noi and Kun Ya, who teaches her how to paint with her entire body and mind, is beautiful, and reminiscent of Linda Sue Park's A Single Shard (Clarion, 2001). As the characters go about their daily tasks, facing hardships and illness, but sharing their love, the story blends details about food preparation, modes of travel, work, and the celebration of a special holiday, presenting a real sense of this distant place. The Thai words sprinkled throughout the text are clear in context and also defined in a glossary. A simple but inspiring story of a child with talent, desire, and belief in herself.-Susan Oliver, Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library System, FL Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A gentle and exotic story about an 11-year-old girl's life in Thailand. Noi loves to sit with her grandmother and assist her as she paints floral and animal patterns on brightly colored silk umbrellas. Noi is beginning to paint herself, feeling the shape of a leaf inside her mind and letting it out through the brush. Her mother makes mosquito nets and her father makes bricks, but there is still not quite enough to support the family. Noi's older sister Ting is sent to the factory to assemble radios. She works very long hours, even on Saturday and holidays. Noi is horrified, and more so when her grandmother takes to her bed during the rains and does not paint. But during the holiday of the Floating Baskets, Loy Krathong, Noi finds a way to contribute to the family and her place in it. The language is soft and clear as rainwater, a glimpse into a way of life little known to American children. Marsden includes a brief Thai glossary. (Fiction. 8-12)

Product Details

Candlewick Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.48(w) x 7.37(h) x 0.70(d)
870L (what's this?)
Age Range:
9 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

On the third day, Noi took an umbrella of a soft brown color. She closed her eyes and listened for the scene as Kun Ya had taught her. She saw Kun Ya holding a stick of sugar cane out to an elephant. The elephant reached with its trunk.

Oh, but an elephant! How could the umbrella have asked her to paint something so difficult!

Slowly, Noi mixed different shades of gray in the bowls. The vision of the elephant had come to her, but she was afraid of spoiling the umbrella.

She closed her eyes again and looked inside until she could see the elephant in the jungle, could hear its thick feet in the long grass, the small snorts it made with its trunk.

Noi painted, forgetting about being afraid, keeping the image of the elephant steady within her.

When Kun Ya woke up, Noi showed her the brown umbrella, twirling it slowly in the gloom of the rainy afternoon. Kun Ya reached out, her hand hovering over the elephant, never touching the silk, but tracing the shapes that Noi had painted. "Someday soon, Noi, you'll be selling these umbrellas."

Noi's heart beat faster, as though it would strike its way out of her chest. She couldn't speak a word.

Meet the Author

Carolyn Marsden’s debut for young readers, THE GOLD-THREADED DRESS, received enormous critical acclaim and was named a BOOKLIST Top Ten Youth First Novel. Of SILK UMBRELLAS, she says, "This story was the first I ever wrote for children. It was inspired by time spent in northern Thailand with a woman who worked to protect the jungle and young factory workers." Carolyn Marsden has an MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College.

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Silk Umbrellas 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just graduated high school, but I remember details from reading this back in elementary school. A beautiful, memorable book that exposed me to the life and world of a little girl like me growing up in a far different place.