By Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, Illustrated by Juan Wijngaard
$15.99, ages 4-8, 56 pages
When a farmer forbids Tashi from taking her sick mother's place in the tea fields, a troop of monkeys brings the peasant girl the most exquisite tea in the land in this breathtaking Chinese fable about extending the hand of kindness.
Every morning before sunrise a barefoot Tashi tags along with her mother, aunt and a woman friend as they carry baskets larger than Tashi down the hill to the tea plantation and labor under the watch of a critical Overseer.
Tashi, who is only slightly taller than her mother's waist, is too young to pick tea and amuses herself while they work under the shade of a tree, sharing fruit from her lunch bag with a family of monkeys that has been chased from the plantation by the Overseer.
One day, Tashi's mother becomes too ill to go to work and Tashi tries to fill in for her picking tea leaves so she can pay a doctor to make her well, but the Overseer berates her for trying and kicks over her basket.
Then Tashi's aunt, too fearful of losing her job, turns her back on Tashi.
Feeling alone and helpless, Tashi runs crying to the tree, as the monkeys circle around her, coming closer than they ever have before.
With no one else to turn to, she shares what has happened with the monkeys. But her sorrow only grows when a few of the adult monkeys grab her empty basket and run away with it up the mountains.
Too upset to cry out, Tashi curls up with the youngest monkeys and falls asleep, only to be awakened by a loud chatter. The adult monkeys have returned with her basket filled to the top with sprigs of the most magical mist-washed tea.
Thinking she might have another chance with the Overseer, Tashi drags the basket back to the farm, only to stop in her tracks when she sees the Empress's Royal Tea Tester, who has come to the plantation in search of the finest teas.
When the tea tester tastes Tashi's tea, he's amazed that such a small girl could pick such exquisite "cloud" tea -- the tea can only be found in high, dangerous parts of the mountains -- and makes her an offer she can't refuse.
Peet and Graham set up the story so beautifully that you come away from this gentle tale feeling as though you've walked in Tashi's shoes, while Wijngaard's artwork is stunning.
He envelops you in subtle changes in light, especially as the sun rises, and paints the facial expressions of characters so vividly that you feel as though you can see into their character.