Ten Little Dumplings – written by Larissa Fan, illustrated by Cindy Wume
Tundra Books, 2021
There are a seemingly unending number of books teaching children the lesson that girls matter, that their ability to achieve is unlimited, and that gender is no obstacle to fulfilling any dream. This is a good trend! In many of these books, there is a spunky and inspiring heroine who learns the hard way that compromise is not the road to freedom. If she wants to be a scientist, athlete, or political leader, a talented girl will have to fight. Larissa Fan and Cindy Wume’s Ten Little Dumplings is different. Inspired by a Chinese folktale and the background of her own family in Taiwan, Fan has created a heroine who is quiet and observant, seemingly willing to conform, but all the time building up her own strength and conviction. Wume’s brightly colored and subtly expressive drawings in ink, gouache, and colored pencil, picture a world which blends the particular and the universal. The little girl in this book may begin as the unobtrusive only sister of ten little dumplings, brothers who are the pride of their doting family, but by the end of the book she is an unforgettable woman whose patience and focus have brought her happiness.
The dumplings live in a specific village, Fengfu, yet Wume’s image suggest different backgrounds for the villagers. Some have straight dark hair, others have light brown curls. Although there is no question about the book’s setting, Wume’s choice lends an air of universality to the story. The era of the book is also ambiguous. A mouse listens to music on an old-fashioned gramophone at the beginning of book, but by the end the girl, grown to adulthood, seems to live in a contemporary city. The dumpling-boys themselves are a classic image of confidence, and why should they not be? Their family is celebrated for having produced ten sons.
Whether eating rice or riding their bicycles in a busy business district, “the boys seemed to take luck with them,” even inspiring a song. They are experts at calligraphy, and gifted athletes. Given the role of expectations in later achievement, it is not surprise that they grow up to be “ten fine men.”
We don’t even meet their sister until halfway into the book. She has been there all along, an obtrusive presence. But her silence has signaled persistence, not surrender. Sitting quietly under a tripod as adults ignore her and pass by, she happily draws. “You may not have seen me,” she tactfully points out, “But I was there, too. You just need to look more closely.”
The advice to look closely may also refer to Wume’s marvelous art, each picture containing many allusive details about both the traditions which form the background of the story, and the girl’s acute sensitivity as she watches, absorbs the world around her, and turns her experiences into art. When her brothers have fun in a museum by dividing their attention among several objects, and also socializing, the girl and her mother carefully view portraits of women. When she and her brothers listen to a book at night read by their father, she looks over his shoulder at the pictures.
The girl grows up to create both works of art and a joyfully complete life for herself. “And so I made my way in the world,” she remarks, as if she were a modernized version of a classic fairy tale. Sitting comfortably in front of her easel, she proudly displays a woman’s picture with echoes of Matisse, and a bright red rose that can only be an emblem of pride. She shares parenting of a wonderful daughter, the little girl riding on her father’s shoulders, her outfit’s red circles matching the street’s red lanterns signaling success and happiness. No young reader will fail to understand the grownup girl’s expression of gratitude, “How lucky I am!” Do not miss this book! If you have never met this girl or anyone like her, then you need to listen once more to her advice: “You just need to look more closely.”