Generosity and Gorgeous Artwork: Lord of the Cranes by Kerstin Chen

Lord of the Cranes
Lord of the Cranes by K. Chen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My kids and I read this book as part of our history unit about ancient China. We almost didn’t get to it before it was due back at the library, but I snuck in a little reading after breakfast.

My children loved this story. The illustrations are gorgeous and the story is a classic one along the lines of Baucis and Philemon about the rewards that come when we’re generous. My children were enchanted by the idea of a man riding on the back of a crane in flight and painting a picture that came alive when people danced and clapped. It also gave us a chance to have a discussion about the reasons for and against being generous.

I do have some reservations, though, about these tales that always connect tangible rewards with generosity. (The only story of generosity I’ve read that doesn’t connect kindness with rewards is “Uncle Ry and the Moon,” a Zen Buddhist tale retold by Jon Muth in his Zen Shorts.) In Lord of the Cranes, the innkeeper didn’t feed the beggar because he was expecting a reward, but the tale wouldn’t have been quite as interesting if the beggar just took the food and the innkeeper’s life just kept on as it was (or if, at the end of the month, the innkeeper discovered that, because he’d given away so many free meals, he couldn’t pay all of his bills and he lost his business and ended up a beggar himself). Because he got a reward for his kindness, I worry that children may end up with the idea that they should get something in return for being generous. Rather than feeling fulfilled and happy when they share their money or their time or their possessions, will they feel cheated if reality doesn’t match all of the stories they’ve been told?

How do we teach children to be generous even if there’s no reward attached to it for us? Oh, wait…I guess that’s my job as their mother to lead by example. I’d probably better get working on that.

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