Ma Jiang and the Orange Ants is a sophisticated picture book, written by Barbara Ann Porte and beautifully illustrated by Annie Cannon. It tells the story of a young girl in a traditional peasant family long ago in China and how political circumstances at the time conspire to challenge her cleverness and courage.
Ma Jiang’s family makes a living by selling orange ants—the voracious insect eaters that protect the tender fruit of orange trees from pests. The ants are a kind of natural pesticide and they are fierce enough to bite people who climb to the tops of trees to cut down their nests. Jiang’s older brothers and father collect the ants, her mother weaves the fine rush bags to hold the nests and Jiang helps with selling the orange ants in the market.
But one day all the available men in the community are conscripted by the Emperor’s soldiers and marched off to build the Great Wall. This means disaster for the Ma family—both older brothers and father are gone, leaving only baby Bao, Jiang and her mother. There is no one to catch the ants. The baby is too little and the risky climbing is men’s work. Then an old beekeeper buys some of the rush mats and bags and pays in the only currency he has, honey. And while she is minding Bao, Jiang gets an idea.
How Jiang solves the income dilemma and saves her family from starvation is brilliant and bold. As they begin to prosper, the only sorrow is the continual absence of the conscripted brothers and father. Throughout the story, which is resolved in a very dramatic and satisfying conclusion, the conditions of life in ancient China are presented in a lovely text that is mellifluous when read aloud and would be an interesting challenge for a young reader. The pictures are exquisite—every page is a full scene, edge-to-edge, with plenty of information about the society Jiang lives in.
Ma Jiang and the Orange Ants is a good story, a constructive example of resourcefulness and responsibility, an excellent cultural primer and pure pleasure to read and examine. Children’s books can be small wonders of information and entertainment and this one is a tale to relish.
Ma Jiang & The Orange Ants Barbara Ann Porte | Orchard Books 2000