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Paper Crane cover

The Paper Crane

ALA Notable Book
Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Illustration
Reading Rainbow Feature Selection

First published in 1985.

About the Story
Many folktales follow a predictable pattern. One such is some version of the following:

1. Protagonist at home
2. Protagonist has problem
3. Protagonist leaves home to solve problem and
a. Performs kindness/es for stranger/s
b. Stranger gives protagonist gift/s
c. Gift helps solve problem
4. Protagonist returns home.

There are many variations on this theme. Some involve dangers and trickery; in many the gift helps overcome the first of three or four dangers.
 
The Paper Crane is the only folktale I've read that talks about the nature of the gift itself. It is a wisp of a story, with no dangers, no trickery, only kindness. It is one of the most beautiful stories I know. I first read the story in a collection of Chinese folktales, in which it was called the "Dancing Yellow Crane." In this version, the stranger drew the crane on the wall of a poor restaurant with the soft yellow inner part of an orange peel a guest had thrown on the restaurant floor. The second version I read was in a collection of Chinese folktales beautifully illustrated by a Czechoslavakian artist, Eva Bednarova. The stranger was a young student who also drew the crane on the restaurant wall, but this time with his brush dipped in thick black India ink. (We call this ink India ink; many other countries refer to it as China ink. Students in ancient China did not have pens or pencils. They carried with them a brush of sheep or other animal hairs with a bamboo handle, plus an inkstone and a dry block of carbon mixed with clay. When the student needed to write, he (and only men were allowed to write) would pour a bit of water onto the inkstone. Every inkstone has a little dip or pool at the far end, and a longer slanted middle. The student had to rub the inkblock against the middle of the stone, wetting it, rubbing, wetting, rubbing, until he had made a thick black ink, which ran down into the pool at the end.)
 
I think I made more attempts at illustrating this story in different ways than I have for any other. I first illustrated it in pencil and white ink on grey paper, but the editor I took it to found the pictures too soft and depressing. Then I decided to make it of cut paper collages, having the whole story take place in the United States but with a woman fiddle player as the stranger, who used the oranges as her writing tool. The editors found these pictures too peculiar and the woman—a gypsy—way too weird-looking. Then I tried to illustrate it in India (or China) ink, in the style of Chinese paintings, and with just small bits of orange scattered about to give brightness. The editors felt this style would be too strange for an American audience.
 
Finally, I came back to cut paper collages. Again I had the story take place in the U.S., but this time the protagonist would be a man with a son, and the pictures of the son would tell a different SILENT story from that of the father. The father's relationship with the crane was exactly the one told by the words, but the boy loved the crane at first, and interacted with it, then lost interest and forgot about it, until it flew away. Then the boy began to do what he could to bring it back, even if only in his memory.
 
The other change I made was in the crane itself. I realised as I was working that it would be much more appropriate to make the crane out of cut paper, since that is what the pictures were made of. In a way, this made the story become a symbol of the book—or any book—itself: an object made of paper and given life by every reader. As a way of showing the magical nature of the dancing bird, this was the only element in the story that I painted, and I painted it as delicately and beautifully as I could. For the crane, I went to the Stoneham Zoo, where as I remember there were several Sandhill cranes, and maybe even a white crane from China. I drew them in as many positions as I could, which was difficult, as they were always moving, moving.
 
When I used to work in classrooms, I would often use this story as a pattern on which students based their own stories, but I added a slight twist: in the Paper Crane, the stranger shows his love and deep relationship with the bird when he "adds something" to the crane by playing music. The crane naturally goes with him when he leaves. I told the students that their stranger had to "add something" to their "gift" that would also make it even more beautiful than it had been up until then, and that this addition might help the stranger and the gift to leave. The results were unusually full of surprise and delight: a nursery owner had a problem with freezing temperatures and gave a stranger a bed during the cold; the stranger gave her a spider that wove warm cocoons around the trees; when spring came and the stranger returned, she sang as the spider wove a staircase up into the sky, which they climbed, disappearing into the clouds. Another child had the protagonist make good, warm boots that nobody bought, until a poor stranger gave her a magic shoelace as thanks for food and a warm place to stay. The shoemaker rubbed the shoelace over the shoes, which became beautiful and full of colorful designs, and her shop became more and more popular. When the stranger returned, he tied the shoelace into the shape of a butterfly, climbed on and flew away, as the shoemaker continued to make her beautiful shoes.
 
This story is an excellent example of how students can learn to use a pattern and make their own stories which are varied, surprising and solid—although the story itself is indeed a wisp, almost a gauzy veil that hides and reveals great beauty.

copyright 2016 by Molly Bang