Author: Yoriko Tsutsui
Illustrator: Akiko Hayashi
Publisher: Fukuinkan-Shoten (1 March, 1976)
TITLE: はじめてのおつかい (Hajimete no otsukai: First Errand)
Author: Yoriko Tsutsui
Illustrator: Akiko Hayashi
Publisher: Fukuinkan-Shoten (1 March, 1976)
While I get up my nerve to split this blog into two and write about books in Japanese, I will tell you about this classic Japanese picture book. It's been translated into English before as "Miki's First Errand" and if you're interested in that version the ISBN is 978-1741260137, but I am choosing to write about the original Japanese version because well, that's the one on my Purple Book Cart and it's the one that sings more closely to my heart.
This is a book that is quintessentially Japanese. The concept of a little girl, a tiny little girl walking off to the shop to buy her mummy some milk is not something that happens in Western countries (and if I am being honest - I am almost sure this hardly ever happens anymore in 21st century Japan). However when Mi-chan's mummy asks her if she's ready for this big task, the little tyke leaps out of her seat, more than ready for action. There are slips and trips along the way, but in the end, Mi-chan is able to successfully bring back the milk (and the change!) to her mother, waiting in the street with a smile. Did Mummy follow her to the shop? We will never know.
Akiko Hayashi's illustrations really carry the story in this book. From the furtive glance of the mother, to the flushed cheeks of Mi-chan, from the speeding bicycle and its wide open forward motion, to the page where Mi-chan falls flat on her face, sending her money flying on the road (I haven't included this spread, because I really want you to read this book!). This is a rollicking adventure tale, we are sure of that. Although the outcome is as simple as successfully purchased milk, it's so much more than that. It's about a tiny voice in the world, insisting to be heard. It's about the innate desire of children to be helpful and to grow up to be the awesome human adults they are destined to be. If Mi-chan is now grown up and has children of her own (and actually, looking at the publishing date she is just my age), I might meet her in a coffee shop for parenting advice.
My life has been thrown a little off kilter recently with a major international move, and in this book too, not everything is smooth sailing. The visitor who comes from far away falls off the shelf and is broken into pieces. The rabbit peers over at the visitor with a tear in his eye. But there is nothing to be done. More waiting is the only option. Outside the window, some wonderful and things happen, all illustrated in Henkes' soft pastel style. It's such a beautiful book and the passage of time is illustrated so gently that it is impossible to stay sad for long. It will most likely mean something different to every child (and unwitting grown-up) who reads it.
Children (and sometimes grown ups) can feel as though like the toys in this window, they are powerless to do anything but wait. As we grow up we are told we have to follow our dreams - we have to get things decided so we can leap along the path to success. Nobody ever thinks about the wisdom of waiting, and that things will sort them out if you give them time. Thank you Kevin Henkes for making the world a softer and kinder place with this book.
I first came across Trombone Shorty la few years back, even before it made the Caldecott Honor list of 2016, I knew it was special. Collier's exquisite use of light and dark, lines straight and curvy, balloons floating through the air like music through the streets of New Orleans - all are the delicious ingredients in a visual gumbo that tells the inspiring story of Trombone Shorty - a boy who played music because he was driven to do it by his environment and a seriously healthy dose of self-respect in difficult circumstances. The illustration of Trombone Shorty and his friends using improvised instruments, the day he found his near broken trombone includes "invisible" crowns that are made with shiny transparent gloss so that they shine and glimmer from the page. This book is stunning, and I would recommend you immediately buy it, except....
I cannot in good faith recommend that you buy this book without hearing the audio first. If you love the illustrations as much as I did (AND I DID), then you only love it 10% as much as you would if you could also hear the audio. I hereby pledge NEVER to try and read this book aloud to an audience, because the experience of hearing the book while also seeing the pictures is so much better. The first couple of times I had tears of joy welling up in my eyes. Tears welled up again when I listened with each of my daughters who are musicians. This. Audio. Is. Insanely. Good.
Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews who wrote the book himself, and has also written a companion book called the Five O Clock Band, narrates the music with his trombone, and I suspect also the trumpet and some of the improvised instruments. I seriously considered going to his concert four days before the ALA conference in Denver just to get a look at this musical hellion in action, just for the utter joy of seeing how his book turned out. This book (and I guess the next one?) refer to his Trombone Shorty Foundation and Trombone Shorty Music Academy that supports young musicians who might not otherwise have access to instruments and music education. It's such a cool idea, and a worthy cause, that I have already bought both the book and CD set several times over as baby gifts for musicians.
Ok I guess I can't just write about this without giving you a little taste of the music in the book, right? Here it is. It's insanely cool, right? Keep in mind this is really just the music that happens at the end, so as you are reading the book you also get scattered trombone and sound effects all the way through. I can't tell you how amazing it is. I just can't. Please just go and get it now.
A word too about the narration by Dion Graham. It's young, it's fresh and it's exactly appropriate for this story. Graham doesn't hurry through the text - the narration leaves time for you to explore the pictures, but goes fast enough for you to retain interest in the story. This is one of those books that will have your child begging "again" and "again" and "again" before bed, because they will hear and see different things each time they read. Graham's narration is exactly as joyous as it needs to be for young children to read this book, and then go and find their own broken / invented instrument to play. The importance of constant practice in the book is not lost, yet neither is it didactic. Dion Graham's voice in this story, the excitement of a small child becoming a giant on stage with Bo Diddley (with his big vast microphone echo voice) will have children rushing out to see how they can make music.
When I first moved to America, I had to give up a job that I had fought to get. I felt a bit rudderless, and quite a lot apprehensive. However I kept positive. I volunteered at a bilingual school and when that didn't feel right, I applied for a job at a different school. I got that job, but was unable to take it. That's when I met a group of friends at the Center for Teaching Through Children's Books in Chicago. These people are my people, and I love them dearly. It took a certain amount of bravery to start going to meetings and then a larger amount of bravery to start going to ALA, NCTE and IBBY conferences, but like Beekle I just kept going. I became Magic Food Fairy of the Caldecott Committee in 2015, and magically, this is how I met Beekle.
Look under the gold-stickered dust jacket and you will find a different front cover (pictured above). It's a much simpler picture than the one on the dust jacket, but to me it more accurately captures the feeling of the book. Lines of lightness and shadow imitate life and the way that feelings and attitudes can change even within the very same day. Beekle stands at the front, looking straight out from the book. The outlines of buildings and clouds and bus stop seem almost incidental to the beautiful patchwork of patterns in this picture of dark and light.
If you don't already know what's on the back cover under the dust jacket then I won't ruin the surprise. Suffice to say that these front and back covers, in addition to the end papers that tell the story of Beekle lost and Beekle found, really make this book very special. I believe there is an audio version of Beekle which I haven't listened to yet, but to my mind this book is best appreciated at a snail's pace, free from jarring page-turn pings that would propel you through the book. If you hurried too much you might miss the serendipitous twist. Again, if you don't know what this twist is already, go back and read the book again - slower this time.
I am at a time in my life right at the moment I'm trying too hard. Like Beekle I am running here and there and searching for something that I won't know until I find it. However, I am happy to be having the adventures I've found along the way.
This delightful book about an absolutely perfect little mouse, Chrysanthemum, deals in hugs and kisses (and Parcheesi) as ways to combat the slings and arrows of teasing at school. The amount of love in this book is simply tremendous - from home cooked food to cuddles and consultations with parenting manuals such as "The Inner Mouse Vol 1. Childhood Anxiety". Even the music teacher Mrs. Twinkle and her heavily pregnant belly ooze the love that we hope all children have in their lives.
It's a sweet story, but it was my friend's back story about it that warmed my heart even more. New to Japan and heavily pregnant, she and her husband had only decided on two names for their triplets they had thought to be twins. The doctors settled on a date for the C-section, the ninth of September. The ninth day of the ninth month happens to be Chrysanthemum Festival in Japan, Kiku no Sekku in Japanese. Kiku (Chrysanthemum) is also a girls name, so my friend wanted to call her third daughter Kiku. However, her husband explained that Kiku is a name like "Doris" or "Mabel" - hopelessly old fashioned and worthy of teasing at school. My friend acquiesced trusting her Japanese husband's judgement, and they settled on another beautiful name - one in fact that is written using the kanji character for "beauty". The story of Chrysanthemum and its relation to the family legend soon became entwined.
As for my friend and her daughters, they too are looking for survival skills. All five of them are strong and vibrant women, bruised terribly by recent events but with all the personality traits they will need going forward. The solid bedrock of parenting they've had over the years, the many laps and the many books, all the memories are clear and present for the time being. This morning I spent a couple of hours bringing all of these picture books back onto the living room shelves, not only for future grandchildren but also as a reminder that while life can be devastating, there can be joy in the cracks.
TITLE: Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
Poems: Misuzu Kaneko
Author (narrative): David Jacobson
Translators/Contributors: Sally Ito & Michiko Tsuboi
Illustrator: Toshikado Hajiri
Foreword: Setsuo Yazaki
Publisher: Chin Music Press Inc. (2016)
Language: English with original poems in Japanese
This impressive picture book combines the little known true and tragic story of a Japanese poet, Misuzu Kaneko with her own poems presented bilingually, inlaid on unmistakably Japanese art. It's not a picture book for tiny little children, but like the last two books I've written about this week this is a book that shows depth. It tackles difficult topics in ways that are respectful of children's intelligence and yet gentle enough to allow space for thoughtful conversation.
The book starts with the story of the young poet who had read one of Misuzu Kaneko's poems and set out on a quest to find her. The last known copy of her collected works had been destroyed in World War II, but the young man eventually finds her brother who is still alive and in possession of her diaries. As you can see from the artwork below, the book is long and rectangular, creating a vast scape of art and words on each page.
* cover art and other artwork provided by the author with permission
I hope you're not reading this on a mobile device because it would be very hard for you to see the words and feel the art from this tiny narrow space. In fact, I really think you should just run to a library or a book store right now so that you can have this very substantial book in your hands. This impressive project is much longer than the average picture book. It is in fact a kind of double picture book in format, with the first half of the book being the story and the second part dedicated to the original poems in Japanese with their translation in English. Look at these excerpts below to realize why you really need to have a copy of this book in your hands.
This book would be perfect for older readers who are studying poetry, but it is also a book that informs without being didactic. Women's issues and domestic abuse are mentioned, as are venereal disease and suicide. It may seem like a hard sell if you have parents at your school who would object to such topics for children, however the topics are approached in such a way as to bring it to the foreground of the picture without explaining it. For example, mentioning that Misuzu caught a disease from her husband is not the same as saying that she caught a venereal disease, but it is. On the page where Misuzu decides to end her own life, she is faced away from the reader, private with her own pain. Her poems remain thoughtful but hopeful throughout the whole book, and the ending to the story shows how one person's life can positively impact a whole community in turmoil. In the aftermath of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, Kaneko's poem "Are You an Echo?" was also shown as a public service announcement in place of advertisements on television.
My children still remember the time after that earthquake as a really strange time. Some of their teachers at International School went home, but some of their classmates remained. Those of us who remained either stayed at home and worked remotely - an uncomfortable thing for the middle schoolers they were, or showed up to school and combined classes with whichever teachers remained. During that time, the pictures on the TV seemed to be on repeat - houses washed away, debris piled up and spilling inside windows of buildings. One oft-shown footage of a boat that is wedged on top of a house has been burned in my memory forever, and is mentioned in the book like a little tragic after note. However the thing that I most remember during those days was the spirit of the Japanese people just to keep going, and just to keep being in the world, imperfect as it was. The spirit of helping each other by whatever means possible is one that shines though this book in which a woman, mistreated in her own life, is able to still heal the hearts of the children she loves with her words; even from her grave.
One of the most dramatic images in the book, cleaved basically in half by the valley in the middle, is the horrified look on Humpty's face as he realizes that his precious bird has landed neatly on top of the wall. Look at his face below. Can't you just imagine yourself and a time that your stomach sank to your knees when all of your best laid plans came crashing down around you? Children have less power than the rest of us - their lives controlled by adults who may or may not have kids' needs foremost in their minds. I believe that every child will have bucket loads of empathy for Humpty on this climactic page of reckoning.
* Cover art and this illustration provided by the author, with permission
Santat's Caldecott winning The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend shares certain aspects with After the Fall. There is something so fragile and vulnerable in each book, and to me the band-aids in this picture closely resemble the bits of sticky tape used to secure Beekle's cardboard crown. In every kid's daily life there are bandaids and tape, little imperfect tools that are used to hold things together until the bigger problems can be solved. In this picture, the bandaids peek out from Humpty's collar even as the huge wall looms reflected in his eyes.
It's this breathtaking attention to the detail and Santat's loving expression of feelings important to children that makes this book such a powerful book. The nursery rhyme really takes on another life and teaches gently without a hint of being didactic. Humpty knows better than anyone that each reader will make their own decisions and overcome their fears only at their own pace. The masterful climax is a twist that surprises everyone including our dear Humpty. Each one of us carries inside the secret happy ending we never knew we had.
TITLE: Draw the Line
Author/Illustrator: Kathryn Otoshi
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press (2017)
Language: English / Wordless
I haven't visited this space in way too long. I don't have any particular excuse for that - life getting in the way sounds so trite, but for whatever reason I lost my words for a while. Ironically it took a wordless book to bring those words back to me.
Draw the Line is simple and beautiful, an important book about the things that divide us. It can be read different ways by different people. I see it on a lap read by a mother and her two children. Or in a classroom to students as a way to discuss complex interpersonal interactions in a simplified way. I read it as someone who has experienced a really challenging year, as well as bearing witness to the personal tragedy of a good friend.
Colours and lines are used in this book in ways that tell the story. It's a little Harold and the Purple Crayon in the way that two boys create their own reality with a simply drawn line. They meet in the valley of the book, and it's this centre space where the action begins. Yellow tones are used as two cheerful boys play together with the rope they have made. Then purple tones appear as one of the boys is caught up in the rope. You can see from the progression of the story and the development of feelings as the action builds. What happens next, again in the valley of the book, is that the whole world comes apart and the boys are stuck on either side of a gaping chasm, the sky deeply purple and bruised.
* Pictures provided by and used with permission of author
The first time I came across this remarkable book I was walking around an ALA conference in Miami when I came to my friend Ellen's booth. I had heard about Kathryn Otoshi from another friend, and had been told to meet her if possible. Happily for me, she was sitting right at Ellen's table signing her newest book at the time, Beautiful Hands. I introduced myself and said that our mutual friend Junko had said we should meet, and suddenly a new story started to be written. Junko Yokota, by the way, is the kind of magical unicorn that you want to have in your life. She not only knows the best picture books, but the thing about Junko is that she knows the best people. As soon as Kathryn knew of our mutual friend she handed me the original artwork for Draw the Line and asked for my opinion. At first I thought there may be some misunderstanding. "No, Junko isn't here with me," I said. "She's in a meeting." However Kathryn insisted that she wanted my opinion, and Ellen's, and Ellen's son... and suddenly we were a little team of book assessors with this precious manuscript in our bare hands. We all looked at it, and it was astounding. It was quiet. Understated. Clear. Poignant. I handed the book back to Kathryn and said it was perfect. However this was an answer she wasn't prepared to accept. After all the book wasn't finished, there must be something we would change. Suddenly our book posse took on a new tone. We read it again with new eyes. And then again with different filters. And again we read it with a variant story. And we came up with some changes which our lovely author seemed excited to hear. Those ideas may well have been what was in her head already. The point is, all of us felt that WE were important contributors to a story that was yet to come to the world..
The magical thing about wordless books, and in particular this magical wordless book is of course the shared experience in storytelling. The most important contributor to the story is the reader. One child will remember a bullying incident on the playground and how it could have been different. One mother will think of the time that she and her child seemed to be on different sides of a raging river. Someone else who reads the book might remember last Christmas and the difficult political conversations that happened between aunt Jude and their big brother. Whatever the situation, when misunderstandings and bad feelings cause a rift, the trauma of that can make it seem like the world has suddenly ripped in half. What should you do when that happens? How do you think this book will end?
I'm going to do you a favour and leave it to you to find out. Find this book wherever it lives, in the library or in the bookstore and bring it into your classroom and your home. In bilingual or multilingual contexts wordless books are perfect because of course the story can be told in any language. The subject matter of this book gives it the added bonus of being able to help in situations where language has failed and misunderstandings have opened up a wide gap between cultures. The simplicity and the beauty of this story is that it really does belong to each and every reader, and the conversations that can take place between them.
The title of this book is enough to tell you: there was a real man called Roget, and he made a thesaurus. What kind of man was he then? Was he like my father, with his nose in a book and poring over things quietly in his mind? Did he think of words all day and feverishly jot them down while he stood in the supermarket line? Did he have little labels all over his house that not only named common household items but provided synonyms for them? Was his toilet paper otherwise used for lists and lists and more lists, so much so that he had to find an alternative to rolled up toilet paper itself?
All these questions and more popped into my mind simultaneously once I knew that Roget was a real person, perhaps because of my childhood experiences with my father. From the very first to the very last endpaper (see my copy of the last endpaper that I have framed) this book is packed with lists and labels, drawings and diagrams. Starting with a simple timeline of Roget's life and ending with a more fleshed out version of the same, in between the story is told in words, pictures and lists. Pictures that look like lists, stories that look like pictures, and big long sentences that are written list-like from top to bottom all add to the wonder of this book. Tiny details in this book make it a pleasure to re-read. You could read it quickly, or slowly. You could have it as a coffee table book to pick up every now and then to study (like my Dad). Every time you read it, or read it to a child, everyone is likely to pick up something new each time.
In some ways this is a book for adults. The author's note and illustrator's note at the end are written in sophisticated language that would not likely speak to a younger audience. However the story and layout are so engaging for a broad range of children. Those most likely to love this book are children who have discovered the power of words. From a young age children realize that language is a tool. From the simple demand: "Ice-cream!" and the imploring plea "Please, pretty please with cherries on top?" to the complex negotiation "I could use some extrinsic motivation to clean my room, mom", some kids know more than others that words are their keys to discovering (and creating) their world. This book tells the story of another little kid like that, who built his world around the words that were his friends.
The story is a simple comparison between the two mountains you can see on the cover of the book. One mountain has been created over a long time by mother nature, and the other has been created in less than an afternoon by a girl, Elizabeth, using her bucket and spade. Most pages follow a predictable pattern - the left page tells the story of the towering old mountain, the right tells the story of Elizabeth's sand mountain down on the beach. The little girl builds up her mountain to be almost as tall as herself, and she is justifiably proud of her effort. When the rain comes to pound down on the big mountain, it flattens out Elizabeth's mountain as well. The sudden rain shower doesn't last long, and neither do Elizabeth's tears, as she starts from scratch again.
I like this book for its simplicity and a description of the physical world that readers by themselves will have begun to discover. The comparison of the big mountain and the little mountain rarely seems forced, although it will take some thinking (or talking with adults) for the reader to figure out that the "new earth mountain" that Elizabeth is walking on has not changed itself in the same time frame as the book. The symmetry of the book has a real-time feel to it, although there are certainly cues in the text to explain that mountains are made over millions of years. The lining up of the left and right pictures is very clever in some ways, but the continuation of the lines may suggest a real-time comparison to some young readers.
The colors are really nice - the earthy tones of nature and the clean, crisp white + primary colors of childhood. I found myself a little distracted by the white strip of page along the bottom, on which the text appears in all of its symmetry. It is apparent that the text is trying to stay away from the imagery and highlight the symmetry of the picture, however the whiteness of that strip seems like a lazy choice. I'm not an artist, but I found myself wishing they had come up with a more creative way of presenting the text - even if only to put it on an earthier toned background. This is an older book (1988) and I find myself wondering if it were to be published today - would different design choices be made?
All in all, I think this is a great book for parents and children to read together after a nice day at the beach or even in a sandpit. Although the story is not an exciting barrel of laughs, this simple storyline will appeal to children who have a fascination with the natural world.
An Australian who lived in Japan with my bicultural family now living in the USA, I believe that there are more different realities than there are books to be written.