Author: Jay Willliams
Illustrator: Mercer Meyer
Publisher: Four Winds Press
Audience: Ages 4-8 years
Summary: Young Han, gate-sweeper for the city of Wu, lived in a humble hut by the city gate and received a bowl of rice and cup of wine each day for his work. A messenger arrived to tell the Mandarin and his councilors that the Wild Horsemen of the north are coming to destroy the city. The Mandarin and his councilors, Captain of the Army, Leader of the Merchants, the Wisest Wise Man, and the Chief of Workman, debated several options and decided their best action was to pray to the great Cloud Dragon, and so they did. The next morning a small, bald, fat old man arrived at the gate and asked Han to take him to the Mandarin as he was the Cloud Dragon for whom they were praying. Han said, “You don’t look like a dragon.” “Have you ever seen a dragon ?” asked the old man. Han admitted that he hadn’t and politely accepted the old man’s word. The Mandarin and his councilors rudely dismissed him so Han invited the old man in to his hut and gave him his bowl of rice and cup of wine. Because of Han’s kindness the old man saved the city by creating a terrific storm. Then he changed into a beautiful and terrible dragon before Hans very eyes.
Literary elements at work in the story: The book has the quality of a fable or folk tale out of ancient Asia. It is simply and beautifully told and Mercer Meyer’s rich, exquisite illustrations bring the city of Wu and its rulers to life. The facial expressions that he captures are marvelous. This gem has been around since 1975, winning many awards for its illustrations. It stays in print.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? The cast of characters is all male; the poor are good and the rich are bad. This is, however, a fable from the ancient Orient.
Theological Conversation Partners: A number of themes are present in this brief tale: Kindness, generosity, hospitality, and unselfishness are rewarded; the openness of a young boy to the unknown; the blindness of those supposed to be wise and brave. This is readily accessible to young readers. Yet the aspect that makes the most intriguing conversation: what does it take to recognize the Cloud Dragon? Throughout Jesus’ life people refused to recognize him. Could the Messiah be found in a stable? Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Jesus told a parable about people who did not recognize him. (Matt. 25:34-46). Our faith claims that God works in the world and it is our business to discern God at work. We tend, as the leaders of Wu did, to think of God in our own image. Jesus’s sobering parable reminds us that God looks like the prisoner, the sick, the hungry. God is free to surprise us.
Faith Talk Questions for children and youth.
- What do the opening paragraphs tell you about Han?
- Why do you think the leaders suggest prayer to the Cloud Dragon last?
- Why do the leaders refuse to believe the old man is the Cloud Dragon?
- Do you think, as the leaders did at the close of the story, that the Cloud Dragon has to look like a fat, old, man?
- People did not recognize Jesus as God’s Son. Think of some stories from Jesus’ life. Why do you think this is true?
- We cannot see God yet we know God is present and at work in the world. Where should we look for God? How can we recognize God?
Review prepared by regular contributor Virginia Thomas