Monday, January 14, 2008

The Silk Princess by Charles Santore

The Silk Princess written and illustrated by Charles Santore
Reading level: Ages 4-8
40 pages
Random House Books for Young Readers (December 26, 2007)

I’ve always loved legends, folktales, fairytales, and myths. As a child, I loved reading about Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan. I had a big yellow book filled with fairytales, and I remember my favorite being Snow White and Rose Red. I also had a book of myths where I read stories of Zeus, Aphrodite, and Poseidon. The Furies and Medusa terrified me, and I felt so sad for Persephone when she was destined to a live in the Underworld. In college, I first read Beowulf and The Iliad. And don’t get me started about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Some of my favorite books I’ve read in my adult life are Marian Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon series. (except for Ancestors of Avalon, which I couldn’t even finish…ugh).

I love traditional literature because I love the idea of oral histories—of stories being passed down through many generations. I love the magic, the stories, the mysterious and often larger than life characters, the dangerous situations, and the mostly happy endings.

I was very excited when I saw The Silk Princess, a legend about the discovery of silk in ancient China. Hsi-Ling Chi, the Emperor’s daughter, plays second fiddle to her brothers. Her father rarely notices her, and she spends most of her day in the palace gardens with her mother. It was on one of these days when she saw a silkworm’s cocoon fall into her mother’s tea, causing it to unravel. Her mother suggests that she find out how long it is, and the delighted Hsi-Ling Chi takes one end of the thread and begins to walk.. Soon she’s out of the gardens and eventually outside of the palace, where even her mother has never been. But Hsi-Ling Chi is not afraid and continues walking. It is during this dangerous journey that she discovers the magic of the silkworms and is finally able to win her father’s attention with beautiful silk fabric.

The Silk Princess is based on the legend of Chinese Emperor Huang-Ti, the Yellow Emperor whose wife discovers how to make silk when a cocoon falls into her tea, causing it to unravel. In the end notes, Santore explains that the wife was sometimes called Lei-Tsu and sometimes called Hsi-Ling Chi, so he decided to put both in his story and create two characters—the Empress Lei-Tsu and her daughter Hsi-Ling Chi.

The Silk Princess has everything I like in a good folktale—magic, mysterious characters, danger, and a happy ending. Santore’s striking water colors are full of detail and paint a beautiful picture of life in Ancient China, from the traditional clothing to the palace. There is one scene where Hsi-Ling Chi encounters a dragon on a bridge, and a tiny Hsi-Ling Chi is holding her shoes in her hand, running from the dragon. The enormous dragon looks just like how I would imagine a dragon in ancient China to look.

A longer picture book with complex sentences, this book is more suited as a read aloud for younger children. Children who are beginning readers may stumble over some of the language such as, “Regal in his bearing, he reigned in splendor,” but it’s this type of language that is only fitting to describe an Emperor. When we actually get into Hsi-Ling’s story, the vocabulary gets simpler, but there is still a lot of text.

If you’re looking for a good folktale or legend to read to your child, The Silk Princess is a good choice, and don’t let the title fool you—I think both boys and girls would be interested in the book, especially the part with the dragon.


  1. Wow, this looks really good! My son is a bit young yet, but I already have books waiting for him on a special shelf. We love Chinese history and culture - I should get this one and set it aside!

  2. Diane,
    I think it would definitely make a great addition to your son's library!

  3. "I love traditional literature because I love the idea of oral histories—of stories being passed down through many generations" - this one should be passed on into our children's schools !