Jeanne M. Lee, . . FSG, $16 (32pp) ISBN 978-0-374-39966-5

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 fiancé 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.)