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Bitter Dumplings

Bitter Dumplings

by Lee, Jeanne M. Lee (Illustrator)

A tasty, original story

This striking picture book ends with a new beginning for three people who never expected to be friends – an orphaned girl cast out by her siblings, a slave escaping from a mighty emperor’s ship, and a hunchbacked old woman known for the bitter-melon and shrimp dumplings she brings to market each day – and for


A tasty, original story

This striking picture book ends with a new beginning for three people who never expected to be friends – an orphaned girl cast out by her siblings, a slave escaping from a mighty emperor’s ship, and a hunchbacked old woman known for the bitter-melon and shrimp dumplings she brings to market each day – and for living in a haunted house at the edge of the marshes. As their hardship-filled paths cross, each of their lives begins to change for the better, in a moving affirmation of the power of compassion.

Set long ago in a Chinese village by the sea, Jeanne M. Lee’s meticulously illustrated story has an extraordinary flavor all its own.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Lee's (I Once Was a Monkey) delicately told tale of hardship in 15th-century China joins the fates of a girl and an escaped slave. Mei Mei's betrothal is broken off when her father dies unexpectedly and her dowry is used for his funeral. Cast out by her cruel sister-in-law, Mei Mei eventually finds refuge with a village outcast called Po Po, a deformed old woman who sells dumplings made from bitter melons and shrimp. As they grow to trust each other, Po Po tells Mei Mei of her own misfortune an early accident maimed her and drove her fianc to call off their marriage and teaches the girl to make the bitter dumplings. A slave serving the emperor's fleet which has landed in order to demand food from the villagers tastes Mei Mei's dumplings in amazement, then follows her home: "This village may be the home from which I was kidnapped as a child," he realizes. Po Po quickly perceives the attraction between the two young people, and reveals hidden treasures personal as well as material to ensure their happy future. Stark details of unrelenting want and plundering raids make this a tale for the stout-hearted, but the storytelling is highly polished and the artwork luminous. The eerie, strangely static watercolors are presented mostly as panels, as if to recall screen paintings. The limpid palette carefully balances contrasting colors to achieve, like the "bitter dumplings" of the story, unexpectedly harmonious results. Ages 5-8. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
Young Mei Mei lives alone long ago by the sea in the Middle Kingdom of China, left penniless by her brothers after the death of her father. She is taken in and given work by Po Po, a hunchbacked old woman who cooks and sells dumplings made from bitter melons. One day, when the emperor's fleet stops for provisions, a young slave spies Mei Mei and escapes to find her. The sailors come to take him away, but Po Po frightens them, leading to a happy ending for the young couple. There is a delicacy to the naturalistic illustrations, which are both Western in design and reminiscent of the Chinese visual culture. The clothing, houses and ships of the past appear in a spacious landscape along with the drama of the human relations. Lee adds a note about the huge fleet of ships actually sent to many lands by the Chinese emperor around 1405, and about bitter melons, the taste of which "you would probably not like..." 2002, Farrar Straus Giroux, $16.00. Ages 6 to 9. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
School Library Journal
Gr 2-5-In 15th-century China, living without the protection of her family could indeed be bitter for an unmarried woman. This historical adventure recounts the struggles and eventual triumph of two women cast out from their seaside village, living at the ocean's edge. After her father's death, motherless Mei Mei's older brothers appropriate her dowry and turn her out of the house. Desperate and starving, she begs food from Po Po, the grumpy old hunchback who sells bitter melon and shrimp dumplings at the village market. Po Po's grudging exchange of food and shelter for Mei Mei's help in preparing and selling dumplings evolves into friendship and then into love. When ships from the emperor's treasure fleet sail into the harbor, a handsome slave escapes and follows Mei Mei to Po Po's house. The old woman prevents his capture and offers the young couple her own dowry, hidden away for many years. Lee's large paintings, executed in harmonious, muted colors in her characteristic style, are steeped in the Chinese aesthetic. The art is best at depicting landscape: the restless sea and the windswept marshes at its edge. Generous in text, Lee's story seems ready to overflow the confines of a 32-page picture book, and the ending is rather abrupt. Yet this tale of two strong women realistically placed in the context of their times will certainly engage older picture-book listeners, inviting them to identify with characters who lived long ago and far away.-Margaret A. Chang, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, North Adams Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A tender story about kindness and trust, with illustrations that combine elements of both East and West in their silken colors and fine line. Mei Mei's parents are dead, and her brothers, who had always been jealous of her, have abandoned her. She tries to live on her own by the sea, but one day, starving, she begs food from the gnarled old woman, Po Po, who sells shrimp-and-bitter-melon dumplings at the market. Po Po is cold and sullen, but lets Mei Mei follow her home, and soon teaches her to catch the shrimp, make the paste, and harvest and cook the melons. Eventually, Mei Mei even takes over the selling. The old woman is often in pain, however, and when Mei Mei massages her back, she tells the story of a youthful injury and hopes lost. Mei Mei sees in this a reflection of her own sorrow. Sailors from dragon ships come ashore to wrest food from the village, and a young slave sailor eats the bitter melon dumplings and finds in their strange taste a memory of his childhood. He seeks out Mei Mei, and Po Po hides them both while she scares off the sailors who come seeking the slave. Po Po offers her own wedding clothes and dowry to Mei Mei, and the last moment of the tale finds the three glimpsing a future of love and happiness for all of them. Lee's colors are like watered silk and the sea: pinks and teals, rose and turquoise, contrast with the dark accents of Mei Mei's long hair and Po Po's white locks. A fine tale told with subtlety and beauty. (Picture book. 7-10)

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
10.30(w) x 10.29(h) x 0.33(d)
Age Range:
7 - 10 Years

Meet the Author

Jeanne M. Lee is the author and illustrator of many books, including The Song of Mu Lan and I Once Was a Monkey: Stories Buddha Told. She lives in Massachusetts.

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