Adeline Foo, illustrated by Christine Lim Simpson,
Guai Wu: The Chinese Elf
Ethos Books, Singapore, 2009.
Adeline Foo’s retelling of Grimm’s The Elves and the Shoemakers not only gives the story a Chinese setting, but it introduces themes such as bullying, loneliness and a search for love and acceptance, which throw into relief the already familiar theme of poverty. Guai Wu is taunted by the other children because of his unusually pointed ears: “Guai Wu! You look like an elf!” Soon his only way to deal with the teasing is to respond as though he really is a monster, thereby isolating himself even further.
Guai Wu, an orphan who depends on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter, is taken in by a lonely widow, a seamstress whose business is not going well and who is also grieving the loss of her child. One night, the widow leaves out a piece of cloth she intends to sew the next day – but in the morning she finds in its place a pair of exquisitely embroidered slippers, which are bought almost before she has a chance to admire them. The same thing happens for a while before she discovers who has been making them…
The engaging narrative conveys the many emotions that emanate from the story, without being overly explicit – but without glossing over them either. So Guai Wu is “sad and lonely” and the widow “didn’t like to think too much about the past. It only brought pain to think of the child she had lost to sickness.” The unhappiness of the two protagonists is exposed without overburdening young readers, who are immediately caught up in their plight and come away at the end not only with a warm glow, but also with a feeling of relief that all is now well.
The beautifully detailed illustrations bring the historical Chinese setting to life, with plenty of domestic features such as furniture or accessories to catch the eye. Rich, intricate embroidery contrasts with the simple interiors. The emotional shifts in the story are equally transparent in the different characters’ faces, and will help readers relate to Guai Wu especially.
Young readers will be carried along by the love and kindness that spill out from the pages of Guai Wu, and perhaps the story will help them to remember to be kind themselves.