Eight-year-old Steve’s parents and all of his belongings are gone after a tragic fire, and now he shares a single room in Chinatown with his grandfather and Uncle Fong (no relation but a childhood friend of Grandfather’s). They are so poor that after his paintbrush split in art class, he’s afraid to go home and tell his Grandfather, knowing that a new one is not possible.
For a book with magic in the title, this book takes a while to get to the fantasy part. The first chapters are all about establishing the setting – early 1960s San Francisco – and characters. The tale of a magic paintbrush given to a poor boy who uses it to spread happiness is a Chinese story that has been retold many times, mostly in picture books. Yep has a unique historical Chinese-American spin to his version though.
Chapters are between 5 and 12 pages long. Each has a small illustration after the chapter title, and most have a full page illustration within the chapter. The cover gives some idea of the black and white interior artwork. I was impressed by Wang’s artistic skill. The ability to convey a child’s drawing changing to real life within a drawing itself is more complicated than most illustrations. When you add the historical setting and fantastical elements, her skill is even more impressive.
However, I’m not entirely impressed with the way the illustrations were printed. The interior illustrations are reproduced in black and white, and while some transitioned well, others lost a lot of nuance. It’s clear from the results that the interior illustrations were painted with colors much like the cover. While I appreciate publishers trying to keep costs down, color interior paintings would have added a lot to this book.
The other quibble I have is that this book is not body-positive. As I’ve mentioned in the past, the original publication date is something that I consider. In this case the genre also applies that this is set in the past and the early 1960s is not known for awareness of different body types.
However, the comments mostly apply to one chapter about Mr. Pang. He is not coded as overweight beforehand, although he’s definitely a villain from his first mention. Instead he is forcefed gourmet meals through a situation of his own making and greed.
Some of the descriptions and comments, as well as the unfortunate characterization of a negative, greedy character as overweight, could still be problematic. They are few enough though, that a well-prepared teacher, librarian, parent, or caregiver could alter them during read-alouds. However I would avoid this for students who struggle with body positivity or who might be triggered with the mention of force feeding.
Because this is short and crosses genres, I’ve often seen it assigned as a class or small group read, or used as a read-aloud. Incorporating elements of historical fiction and fantasy, with the major bonus of an Asian-American main cast, this book is deservedly popular. It also deals with loss and poverty in a sensitive manner.
The relationship between Steve and his grandfather starts off full of misunderstandings and poor communication, but grows throughout the story into a true family relationship. They both manage to communicate their needs through the magic paintbrush and gain some understanding of each other.
Part of me hoped for a sequel to this one. There is so much more to explore with the paintbrush, the Lady on the Moon, and their new lives. But the story really is more about the relationship Steve has with his grandfather and Uncle Fong – and that comes to a natural conclusion by the end of this book.
I’d recommend this for teachers, librarians, or as a family read-aloud. With just 11 chapters, this book can be completed in two weeks or less as a read-aloud, or within a month as a structured group read. Steve is in third grade, and this is structured somewhat like an early chapter book, but the vocabulary and complexity put it higher, in the upper elementary/lower MG range. The short chapters and low reading level could make it achievable for hi-lo readers if they aren’t turned off by the protagonist’s age.