Title: The shadow hero
Author: Gene Luen Yang
Illustrator: Sonny Lieu
Publisher: First Second (2014)
This morning I woke up to the wonderful news that my wonderful mentor and teacher Toby Rajput was going to be on TV promoting diverse books. It is getting close to the holidays and as we plan our Christmas shopping, and it is important to include books on our list for young people that will act as mirrors (readers able to see themselves in characters), windows (readers able to look into the lives of others who are different from them) and ideally sliding doors (books draw us right into the story so that we can imagine ourselves in place of the main characters who may have lives similar and different to our own). This is the message of the social network campaign #weneeddiversebooks and it was the message of Toby this morning. You can watch the footage here.
One of my favourite books from Toby's holiday list (although to tell you the truth it's hard to pick between her four examples which are for different age groups) is The Shadow Hero pictured above. The main character is an Asian-American super hero called The Green Turtle. According to interviews like this one with Yang, the rumor is that The Green Turtle was originally intended as a Chinese American character by 1940s cartoonist Chu Hing. However when Hing was told that he must make the super hero caucasian, he passive aggressively made sure that nobody ever saw Green Turtle's face. It was always obscured by shadow or you saw a back view of the super hero, but no actual proof of his identity or ethnicity. The original series wasn't very popular (maybe the name? Green Turtle doesn't sound so flash....) and it was cancelled before the story could get very far, or even have an origin story.
I love the reference to this 1940s story in the title of The Shadow Hero, which is Yang and Liew's way of providing that backstory for The Green Turtle, who might well have been America's first Asian superhero. And I love everything about this book. The young protagonist who gets a hard time from his family. His mission to train himself. His dorky super power (is it a super power?) to be able to dodge bullets. Most of all however I love how this comic portrays a very Asian vibe while still being set in America, reflecting the Asian American experience of that era.
You'll notice in that interview with Yang he's asked about Superman and the immigrant experience. That's a theme Yang's been able to elaborate on this year, with his new Superman comic. Check out this article and Yang's quote about how Superman's experience as an immigrant resonates with him: "I felt like I was living under two different cultural expectations. Super heroes are the same way. They have two different names. They have to operate under two different sets of rules."
I have bicultural kids who live in a third culture, and I just know they will get what Yang's talking about there. Can you guess what kinds of books are going to turn up under our tree this Christmas?
Yesterday I wrote about Shinsuke Yoshitake's It Might Be an Apple (the 2015 UK translation of the 2013 original Japanese text), and today I want to show you the Japanese original, and something very cool I haven't seen in bookstores outside of Japan. I've pictured this book below with all of the paper ephemera that are included, tucked into the pages of the book. This is the way most Japanese books come - loaded with extra PR materials that can be discarded or provide useful ways for the reader to interact with the book.
Take a look at the gold/bronze strip of paper that wraps itself around the book cover front and back. This is called the book obi, named for its resemblance to the obi (silk fabric belt/wrapper) worn around the kimono. The book obi typically contains PR information you might otherwise write on the back cover, in this case a list of prizes the book won on the front, and a slogan on the back, translated loosely as "Philosophy? Delusion? Imagination? If you've got a brain to think with, the world is infinitely fascinating. Shinsuke Yoshitake's new concept book". The obi says this without having to interrupt the design of the book, as it can be removed and discarded. In the bookstore buyers can be attracted by the prizes on one side, can know what the book is about before opening it, but still be able to see the book design. Are you fascinated to know what those other pieces of paper are? OK, here they are, and I am saving the best for last:
This folded insert encourages readers themselves to come up with different things that the apple might be. On the flip side of the insert is the basic apple outline, and the words "This apple might be a .......". There is a place to write your name, and your age. Readers are supposed to draw their own versions of the apple, then send them by mail, e-mail or via Facebook to the publisher. It's not a competition, and there is no prize, but the different ideas are then uploaded onto the book's Facebook page. When I looked, there were angels, devils, teapots, apples that ran away when you try to eat them, and one in particular that I loved where the apple might be "invisible" (the artist had gone over the black outline in white crayon to make it disappear).
To tell you the truth, when my kids were growing up I didn't pay these inserts much attention. Writing this blog, I am SO sad I didn't have my kids do all of this. What an amazing way to bring kids into the conversation of how books are created and published. Some amazing ideas for you if you live in Japan, or ever if you don't....
* If you're like me, you're slowly growing a collection of picture books. Make it a habit to send that postcard feedback to the publisher - you might be able to influence what the publisher will do next.
* If you're not in Japan - send feedback to the publisher anyway. What a great way to get your opinion on things like #weneeddiversebooks heard.
* Check first thing for interactive activities inside your book. Having your children or students participate in some kind of campaign like the one outlined above is the quickest way of hooking them in to the book's concept and literacy in general.
* Check again - there might be Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags that relate to the book you just purchased. Join the crowd!
* Make it a point to keep your itemized book receipts if you don't live in a country that gives you these paper inserts. You never know when you will need to pull a book recommendation out of your purse. Make the world a better place by filling it will all your favorite books.
* Some book obi or other book ephemera (you might get a lot of this if you are a teacher, for example) can be used in art projects. Create Christmas trees filled with joyous picture book characters. Cover notebooks. Decorate mirrors. The art will brighten your spirits and remind you to take time out to do the most joyous activity of all - read to your kids. :)
Today is as good a day as any to start a book blog. In fact, it's really a perfect day to do it. My friend sent me a book I had been obsessing about from the UK, and I was able to pick up the original in the local Japanese language bookstore. It's a perfect book to kick off this book blog, because it is all about explicitly defining things that would otherwise define themselves.
A young boy comes home from school and finds an apple on the table. At least, he thinks it's an apple but it might be a fish rolled up to look like an apple, it could be half apple / half orange, or nothing but peel within peel. The apple might have feelings, the apple might have friends and relatives somewhere. The apple might be planning something. The apple could be from outer space and be home to tiny little apple aliens that can only be seen with a magnifying glass. There is no way to know for sure. This one apple is food for the little boy's wildest imagination, and each page brings fresh possibilities, ripe with deep thought and complete with diagrams and labels that explain the boy's thinking.
Explaining thinking is a skill that we insist children must develop in all subject areas at school. Math, science and language arts all demand a level of critical thinking and transparent thought processes that were not a part of traditional teacher-centered education in years past. Gone are the days when rows of correct answers on a worksheet are enough. Now children are asked to make their thinking visible, and for good reason. By making thinking visible we are opening our thought processes to a dialogue with others (peers, teachers, parents) and by doing that we are keeping our thinking alive and moving forward. We are also honoring an ancient truth found in constructivist theories of education, that all knowledge is built on the foundation of existing knowledge. By making our thinking visible, we share things we already think we know and wonder how our theories might live up to reality. There are no wrong answers - just theories that need to be tested. This book is all about that process.
It Might Be an Apple asks the reader to think outside the box on a very simple topic, and the simple line drawings and diagrams featuring mainly grays, yellows and pale pink colors make sure that the many red apples and applesque ideas pop from the page. It would be great as a parent to child read aloud, an exploration with a teacher and a class (maybe 1st or 2nd grade?), or an individual quiet reading project for an older child with an abundance of curiosity.
A note about the Japanese book which likely proved a challenge for the translator: there is a page of "friends and relatives" of the apple that is laid out like the Japanese hiragana alphabet. The page before names just five of those friends: Rango, Ringo, Rungo, Rengo and Rongo, each shaped differently and each representing ら (ra) り (ri) る (ru) れ (re) and ろ (ro) from the Japanese alphabet. These five characters appear again on the next page laid out with each and every letter of the Japanese hiragana alphabet, with the shapes and colors of the different apple friends being suggestive of the name (extra points to the friend Ungo who looks like unko : poo). The alphabet effect and many of the suggestive shapes are lost in the English translation, but instead attention has been paid to make sure names in each row will rhyme. An amusing effect can be noticed from the page before, where the names do not rhyme or resemble what they are supposed to be. If the reader is really on their toes they will notice those five friends appear together in a column on the next page. I am really sad, however that in the English translation they changed the name Ringo (which means apple in Japanese) to Jingo. It does rhyme with the other friends in that row (Bingo and Wingo), but leaving this one as Ringo would have been a nice light bulb moment for any children who have any knowledge of Japanese, since this particular friend is the only one on the page that is shaped like a regular apple.
I have so much more to say about this book and about Japanese picture books in general, but I don't want my first blog posting to be overly long. I really appreciated this book as a reminder to make my thinking visible about this blog. I didn't want this blog to be like other book blogs that concentrate on a particular marketplace. I will review old books, new books, books published in the USA and books published in other countries. I am Australian and have lived half of my life in Japan, so that's a good start. I now live in the USA and look after a bunch of multilingual/international picture books in my professional life, which is what gave me the idea for this very eclectic collection of thoughts. If you'd like to make your own thinking visible, please do so in the comments or contact me directly. It might be fun to think about these and other interesting picture books together. :)
Title: It might be an apple
Author: Shinsuke Yoshitake
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Thames & Hudson Ltd, UK (April 6, 2015)
Language: English (Translated from Japanese, originally published under the title Ringo kamoshirenai in 2013)
ISBN: 978-0500650486 (Japanese original ISBN: 978-4893095626)
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.