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Alexandra David-Neel’s Journey to Lhasa

by Don Brown & illustrated by Don Brown

Age Range: 5 - 9

Pub Date: Sept. 30th, 2002
ISBN: 0-618-08364-2
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Extraordinary women who had incredible adventures often are the subjects for Brown’s (Across a Dark and Wild Sea, p. 101, etc.) biographies and he has found another to celebrate. Alexandra David grew up in 19th-century Paris and had a career as a singer, but she was utterly consumed with wanderlust for Asia and the study of Buddhism. In her 40s, she left her husband, Philip Neel, for a journey; it would be 14 years before she returned. She went to Tibet, studying Tibetan as a hermit for a year, then received permission to study at the monastery in Kum Bum. There, a boy named Yongden became her servant, and later her companion and adopted son. She and Yongden traveled to Lhasa disguised as beggars on a pilgrimage—she darkens her face and hair for the journey—and they conquered snow-filled mountain passes, frozen rivers, and even rode a leather-rope cable over a deep gorge. She was the first Western woman to see Lhasa. An Author’s Note and bibliography offer more information, including that David-Neel died at 101 in 1969, just after having renewed her passport. Even now, children mostly seem to hear about wild adventure as the purview of men and boys: to have Don Brown’s series is a bracing antidote to that misconception. Brown’s signature watercolors are impressionistic, almost calligraphic: a yak looms in the foreground; Alexandra and Yongden are tiny figures in a vast snowy expanse on the “roof of the world”; a colorful tapestry of tiny paper prayer flags surround the trunk of an ancient tree. Alexandra’s words seem to all be taken from her own accounts of her travels. Heady, powerful stuff. (Picture book/nonfiction. 5-9)