Written by Roseanne Thong
Illustrated by Eujin Kim Neilan
Boyds Mills Press, 2010,
“Fly free, fly free in the sky so blue. When you do a good deed, it will come back to you.”
Mai softly sings these words when she invites Thu to help feed the caged sparrows outside the Buddhist temple in Vietnam. Mai wants to free the sparrows, since setting an animal free is a good deed in Buddhism, but she can’t afford to pay for their release. So, she visits and feeds them. Mai’s good deed sets a series of events in motion as Thu gives her shoes to a girl, who gives water to a man, who gives a woman a ride in his cart, who feeds a monk, who treats a boy who is ill–each repeating the song Mai shared. The boy’s father, thankful that his son is again healthy, goes to the temple where he sees Mai feeding the sparrows and singing the song. Understanding how good deeds and kindness are passed from person to person, he gives the sparrows’ owner all the money he has to free the birds. Mai joyfully opens the cage, calling “Fly free, fly free, in the sky so blue…” as the sparrows fly into the sunset.
This story of kindness and hope draws on the Buddhist ideas of karma and samsara, that good deeds (or bad) eventually return to you, whether in this life or the next. The story is simply and beautifully written as a circular narrative that illustrates how good deeds cycle through life, back to their origin. Though an Author’s Note at the end explains aspects of Buddhist beliefs, the story’s rich message transcends religion.
Eujin Kim Neilan’s illustrations are done in watercolors on board, the grain of which enhances the composition and movement between illustrations. Wood boards are a common material and reflect the simple life of Mai and others in her community. This is further highlighted by the simple singular colored shapes in each illustration. The sunlit tranquil scenes match the story’s kind and tender message.
Roseanne Thong was born in Southern California but lived in Asia, primarily Hong Kong, for over 15 years. Because she is concerned with being culturally accurate, she asks “insiders” to proof her work to make sure she is accurately representing another culture and acknowledges these individuals at the beginning of the book.
Fly Free! works well in a text set on acts of kindness with books such as One Smile (Cindy McKinley (2002) and One Thousand Tracings: Healing the Wounds of World War II (Lita Judge, 2007). It could also be paired with Zen Shorts (John Muth, 2005) to examine readers’ hopes, understandings of life, and relationships with others. The Caged Birds of Phnom Penh (Frederick Lipp, 2001) would offer another perspective into the practice of buying and releasing caged birds at the temple gates.
Prisca Martens, Towson University, Towson, Maryland, USA