Written by Hisako Kimishima (English version by Alvin Tresselt), Illustrated by Kei Wakana
Parents Magazine Press, 1968
There once lived in China a poor peasant boy named Ma Lien. Day after day he worked hard in the fields so that he would have food to eat and a small hut to live in.
The plot in a nutshell: Ma Lien is a peasant boy who wants to be an artist. A wizard gives him a magic paintbrush, which gets him noticed by the emperor, who wants to use his powers for his own greed.
Ma Lien and the Magic Brush is one of the books I remember from my childhood days as a member of the Parents Magazine Press book club. I loved Kei Wakana’s illustrations in this book and their flowing watercolor style. The colors and textures of the artwork reminded me of one of my favorite paintings, The Green Bridge II, which I loved seeing at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
The paintbrush’s magic causes everything Ma Lien paints to become real as soon as he’s finished painting it. That would be an awesome power…but like most awesome powers, it has a dangerous side and would have to be handled with responsibility. Imagine how tempting that could be for someone on a diet! (I would probably get really good at painting plates of cheese fries.)
Of course, in the wrong hands, the brush could paint an army of warriors or an atomic bomb or a gigantic serpent. Fortunately, Ma Lien is a pretty straightforward kid, with only good motives. And we get to see him outsmart the greedy emperor, time and time again, ultimately leading to the emperor’s downfall. I’m always a fan of ‘brains over brawn’ as a plot point to any story. It’s a good reinforcement in a world where bullies have too much of a toehold already.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that there are those who will always want to exploit people with great talent, but it’s up to each person to choose how their talent is used.