cover image I Once Was a Monkey: Stories Buddha Told

I Once Was a Monkey: Stories Buddha Told

Jeanne M. Lee. Farrar Straus Giroux, $17.99 (40pp) ISBN 978-0-374-33548-9

A monkey that takes refuge in the ruins of Buddha's temple during a monsoon sets the stage for these finely honed retellings of six Jatakas, or birth stories. As the monkey's eyes adjust to the light, he discovers he is in the company of a lion, turtle, jackal and dove, and a statue of ""the Enlightened One"" begins to speak. In each tale, Buddha assumes a different shape to impart his message of peace, attentiveness, tolerance and respect. Lee (The Song of Mu Lan) effortlessly and subtly weaves Buddhist practices and principles into her evenly paced tales. Each story is a study in brevity and restraint yet, like Buddha, conveys enormous empathy. For instance, after a heron, in a deceptive ploy, consumes all the fish in a lake, a crab outwits him then makes his way back to the water, ""weeping all the while for his lost friends."" Lee draws the frame story in black-and-white, with Buddha in teaching posture and the animals listening attentively. The full-color illustrations for each Jataka combine the strength of woodcuts and the fluidity of Chinese silk painting, with their serene landscapes in soft colors and confident black lines; the full-spread illustration of a lion heading off a stampede of animals bound for danger is especially moving. Fans of Aesop's fables and the Just So Stories will likely find these characters equally as compelling, while others will discover a gentle and graceful introduction to Buddhism here. Ages 5-up. (Apr.)