The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Image
Big Picture Image
Emily Arnold McCully, 1998.
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun's Kung Fu written and illus. by Emily Arnold McCully.Levine/ Scholastic, 1998. [40p]
ISBN 0-590-37487-7  $16.95   7-10 yrs

You don't generally see "nun" and "kung fu" in the same sentence (and the juxtaposition in itself is going to grab kids' attention), but they're inextricable in this picture book, which tells of Wu Mei, the legendary Ming dynasty scholar who became a Budd hist nun and kung fu master.

McCully's control of her unusual story is superb, and she doesn't make the mistake of ignoring the more conventionally appealing aspects in order to focus on high-minded philosophy. Wu Mei's principles are succinctly and amusingly described: she taught young men who came to study with her "if they were sincere, and didn't just want to beat somebody up." The book focuses primarily on Wu Mei's teaching of Mingyi, a young woman who seeks to avoid an arranged marriage, and it cinematically revels in their meeting: a pair of huge footpads set upon Mingyi in a deserted street as the little nun hovers on the edge of the picture; a page turn reveals the dream-fulfilling comeuppance as the demure nun unleashes her hidden powers and sends the lugs sailing thro ugh the air. Mingyi seeks to avoid marrying a brigand, and under Wu Mei's guidance she challenges him to a kung fu match in a year's time, his victory prize to be her hand in marriage. The book then describes steps of Mingyi's physical and mental traini ng, making initially alien imagery into understandable components of a physical discipline, and leads up to her final victory over her would-be husband and her decision to follow the study of kung fu rather than to marry at all. McCully's text is simple and grounded in the real and familiar, so that qi and other concepts related to kung fu aren't impenetrably mystical despite being paradigm shifts for most youngsters. The story has verve and momentum, reading rather like one-seventh of The Magnificent Seven; kids who haven't previously contemplated martial arts will find this awakens their interest, and all will enjoy the idea of being able to trounce overconfident opponents while remaining responsible and mature.

In a genre where the flashy and creatively interpretative are becoming the illustrative norm, it's easy to underestimate McCully's quieter and more literal art. Her restraint keeps the visuals from overshadowing the text, however, and more importantly f rom undercutting the text's emphasis on the concrete application rather than the abstract philosophy. Pastel and tempera add an appropriate oomph to the watercolors, and the figures are characterized by expression and movement rather than detailed draugh tsmanship; the little nun's bald head and blue robe and Mingyi's dark hair and muted red jacket stand out as recurring motifs even amid busy crowds, and the book makes the most of the contrast between Mingyi and her hefty opponent. Design keeps things mo ving too: oversized horizontal pages feature varying numbers of panels, so that the freedom of the drawing is disciplined by straight framing borders and boxes of text.

Historical yet energetic, this will make for a vigorous readaloud (one you may want to save until just before recess); its high-action subject and unthreatening paneled page design will also entice independent readers, and the brigand, kung-fu nun, and p rotagonist going up against great odds are born to be booktalked. An author's note gives historical background and states that the legend of Wu Mei may not have been based in fact-but who cares?

--Deborah Stevenson, Assistant Editor

Big Picture Image
March's Bulletin cover illustration
by Emily Arnold McCully from
Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun's Kung Fu,
Copyright 1998. Used by
permission of Scholastic.

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This page was last updated on March 1, 1998.