Book Review: Little Orchid’s Sea Monster Trouble, Claudine Gueh Yanting (2014)

December 19th, 2014 12:52 pm by Kelly Garbato

An Imaginative, Animal-Friendly Tale

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an e-copy of this book for review through eBooks for Review.)

Little Orchid lives Jalan Kayu Village, a riverside fishing and farming community in central Singapore. The year is 1965, and the country is abuzz with talk of independence (or expulsion, depending who you ask) from Malaysia; just as nine-year-old Little Orchid is about to find her bigger, more grown-up self, so too is her homeland on the cusp of becoming “a grown-up country” – “driven out of the family and expected to live on its own.”

But politics is quickly overshadowed by the oncoming typhoon from the South China Sea. As it approaches the Jalan Kayu River, it mercilessly tosses fishes, lobsters, and other sea creatures into the sky. Or are one of the Giants to blame?

When Little Orchid and her older sister, Little Lotus, are invited to a wealthy classmate’s house for dinner, Little Orchid is overcome with excitement: this will be her first evening out! Not even Ma’s protestations (“Orchid will…she’ll break a bowl or spill her drink or something. She’ll bring trouble to others.”) can sour her mood. (Not entirely, anyhow.) Better yet, Sister Rainbow’s father, Mr. Chan, is a fisherman; perhaps she can ply him for more information about the sea monsters, particularly the Giant Cuttlefish who is the object of many rumored sightings.

Little Orchid gets her wish – in a manner of speaking – when she comes face-to-face with the Giant Cuttlefish…as she’s slaughtered for the feast.

The creature never stopped struggling. Its mouth opened and shut, but only let out a low, raspy honk. I stood outside the kitchen and peeped through the half-closed door.

Five maids pushed a boiling cauldron on a trolley near a platter. The steam burned my face. They raised the Giant Cuttlefish and tipped it towards the cauldron. The poor creature raised its tentacles. Honk! Honk! Honk!

My throat tightened. I wanted to scream for it. Just before the chefs cut the ropes, I stared straight into its eyes. And it stared right back at me again.


Gurgle. Flip. Splat. Splat. Help!

The Giant Cuttlefish grabbed hold of the rim of the cauldron and tried to climb out. The chefs poked at it with a big wooden spoon to shove it down. I turned around and covered my eyes. A lump grew in my throat as I stifled my tears. Chopping and sizzling sounds burst from the kitchen.

When the feast is finally served, Little Orchid tries to avoid those dishes containing the dismembered pieces of the “treasure of the sea” – but at the Chans’ insistence, she reluctantly swallows a meaty bit of the Giant Cuttlefish…and then promptly vomits it back up. Her mother was right: Little Orchid disgraced her family and brought trouble to others.

Yet whatever trouble Little Orchid might be in, she cannot erase the image of the Giant Cuttlefish from her mind’s eye: “I tried not to think about how the creature had begged for help and how I had failed it.”

Ma’s wrath is the least of Little Orchid’s worries, however. That night, she awakes in great pain: covered in bloody, weeping boils that soon give way to smooth, brown skin; a bloated belly; eight arms; two tentacles; w-shaped eyes; two aching hearts; and a duck-like beak (honk!). Little Orchid has transformed into a Giant Cuttlefish!

“If we take a special one from the sea, the sea will take a special one from us.”

Little Orchid flees to the river in terror, not wanting her parents to see the monster she’s become. After swimming as far as her new body can take her, she settles down on a rock – her skin handily changing colors to camouflage her – in confusion and despair.

At her lowest, Little Orchid meets a little lobster in need of help. (Like a miniature version of the creature Little Lotus ate the night before.) Baby Lobster was chasing jellyfish and wandered too far from home; only with Little Orchid’s help can he make it back. With that small act of bravery and kindness, Little Orchid finds a new family in the Royal Lobsters. When they choose to flee north, away from the ominous sea swirl, Little Orchid goes with them, vowing to protect her adopted family as best she can. But when the typhoon veers towards the river coast, the runaway monster previously known as Little Orchid must make a difficult choice.

Little Orchid’s Sea Monster Trouble is a lovely and imaginative middle-grade story that’s also rather animal-friendly. Since she hails from a fishing village, Little Orchid doesn’t think much about the sea creatures she eats; it’s just the way things are. Witnessing the traumatic fate of the Giant Cuttlefish, however, lights a spark in Little Orchid’s consciousness that only grows after her transformation. Once she befriends members of species which she previously only saw on her plate – or trapped in the fishing nets of the “Seaweed Monsters” – Little Orchid finds that she’s no longer keen on killing and eating them: she now sees them as someones, not somethings. This shift in thinking is underlined with the pronouns she assigns to the Giant Cuttlefish who started it all: at first an “it,” later a “her.”

In fact, when she finally has a tearful reunion with her family, Little Orchid asks family friend Buffalo Brother , “Could you not be a fisherman when you grow up?” The creatures under the sea are her family, too, and Little Orchid has made a promise to protect them, always.

If only this ethic extended to the land animals – chickens and pigs – Little Orchid’s family raises and sells! I longed for a scene in which Little Orchid liberated them ahead of the storm. This disconnect is especially weird, since most sea creatures (excepting whales and dolphins) usually sit at the bottom of the species hierarchy, right below chickens and other birds. With their inscrutable expressions and alien faces, fishes (and birds) elicit little sympathy for humans. Some of us still insist that “seafood” isn’t meat, or question whether fish can indeed feel pain.

Then again, maybe I’m reading too much into it (as vegans and book bloggers are sometimes wont to do); maybe all the crustacean love is simply due to the author’s affinity for sea creatures.

On a more basic level, Little Orchid’s Sea Monster Trouble is an inspirational story for younger kids: no matter how small your body, it’s the size of your heart that really matters. You’re so much more than you think.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: The story is set in Singapore circa 1964; accordingly, all of the characters are Asian.

Animal-friendly elements: Yes! After failing to save a Giant Cuttlefish from becoming the main course at a schoolmate’s dinner party, Little Orchid transforms into a sea monster herself. See the full review for more.


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2 Responses to “Book Review: Little Orchid’s Sea Monster Trouble, Claudine Gueh Yanting (2014)”

  1. Claudine @ CarryUsOff Books Says:

    Thank you for this lovely review, Kelly! I’m so glad you enjoyed Little Orchid’s story.

  2. Kelly Garbato Says:

    You’re very welcome, Claudine. :)

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