Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Non-Fiction Picture Book: Summoning the Phoenix

Title: Summoning the Phoenix: Poems and Prose About Chinese Musical Instruments
Author: Emily Jiang
Illustrator: April Chu
Publisher: Shen's Books
Pages: 32
Review Copy: From Publisher
Availability: On Shelves Now

Review: Before a reader even opens the book, it is obvious that this is something more than a typical informational book. The cover hints at fantasy and magic. It also demonstrates the richness and attention to detail that is found in the artwork throughout the book. The artist explains her illustration process on her blog using one of my favorite spreads from the book. Obviously, the art impressed me, but so did the text.

The text is in two parts, something that I seem to be noticing a lot lately like in Do You Hear the Nesting Bird? and Mama Built a Little Nest. One part is the poems that are telling about the preparations children are making as the time draws near for their orchestra concert. This is not a typical orchestra concert however. The orchestra is made up of musicians playing Chinese instruments. We find out in the author's note that this type of orchestra has only been around for about fifty years and traditionally the instruments would have been played alone, as an accompaniment or in a small group. The book is a blend of modern and ancient.

Readers may choose to go through the book simply reading the brief poems and looking at the illustrations. This could be especially helpful if the reader is young and not ready for the smaller print and length of the informational text. The poems are written from a child's perspective and are pretty  easy for children to understand and enjoy - particularly if they play instruments themselves. I think they will be delighted by "Warming Up" which features fish lips and a pretend kiss. This is accompanied by a wonderful illustration of a girl making a fabulous fish face. Another one that will be sure to engage children is "Friendly Competition." In this poem, two musicians play as fast, long, and loud as they can trying to outdo each other. This results in purple-blue faces. I imagine it would be fun to act this out with or without instruments. The playfulness in the poems is refreshing and often brought a smile to my face.

While the poems are interesting and fun to read, the second part of text, the informational portion, adds a lot to the book and shouldn't be entirely skipped. Even with a young child, I would share at least some of the information. Each instrument is named (with pronunciation) and Jiang explains how it is put together. She also tells about how the instrument is played and describes the sound. What really caught my imagination though were the legends and little tidbits about some of them. That was where the phoenix came into play. Legend says that the xiao, a flute made of bamboo,  has magical powers that allowed it to summon creatures such as a dragon and a phoenix.

I am looking forward to sharing this book with our students. Music is something that many children connect with and the format and illustrations are sure to capture their attention and allow for interaction. I would definitely recommend this book for purchase. I am also looking forward to the album, Songs for Summoning the Phoenix, that is scheduled to be published also. That was the only thing that was missing for me. I wanted to actually hear the instruments as I read. I hope you get a chance to experience this book for yourself. It's a treat.

Other reviews & interviews:
Kirkus - review
The Pirate Tree - review
Mary Robinette Kowal - interview/guest post
Whatever - interview/guest post


  1. I've been seeing this title around and it does look gorgeous. I hope we have this in our libraries soon. :)

  2. Thank you, Crystal, for such a thoughtful review! I'm delighted that you enjoyed all aspects of the book!

    1. Thanks for writing it and sharing with all of us.

  3. Lots of poetry books in this week's NF PB posts. So glad to see poetry getting in the hands of young children.

    1. I am so hoping to keep poetry going all year long instead of confining it to April. I am glad that great books with poetry are still being published for our children.