Working the magic


Book review, from Tokyo – On the shelf of my local library stood a dark cover with a little witch. Standing on the branch of a tree, her frock catches the wind. She grips her broom tight, her pointy hat reaching up high to the full moon above. Appearing small yet determined, a crow perches alongside her. 『ちいさな魔女とくろい森』(Chiisana majo to kuroi mori, lit. The little witch and the black forest; Bunkeido, 2019) is unlike other witches’ tales.

The story begins. In the moonlight, two witches fly north to the black forest. One big, one small. A crow is with them. The forest animals greet the mother and daughter pair, and they move quickly to a hut to start preparing a witches’ brew. The forest is ill.

The mother witch works her magic, chanting a spell to conjure up a potion. The little witch sings along, mimicking her mother. When the potion is ready, the little witch helps to cast the brew, pouring it on the ground and roots of every single tree in the forest.

“Will the forest recover?” she asks.
“It will take time,” was the response.

One day, they hear that the forest in the south has fallen ill too. But there is still work to be done for this one. “I’ll stay,” says the little witch, suggesting that her mother go south.

But she cannot yet make the healing potion on her own. Chanting the spell is easy, and she rubs her hands, expecting the seeds to form and fall from her palms into the boiling broth. Nothing happens.

The big witch offers some advice – for the spell to work, you must think of all the living things in the forest, have them in your heart at all times. Day after day, her palms get sore from days of practice. Until the day when the seeds fall from those blisters into the steaming pot will she be ready to protect this forest alone.

Mutsumi Ishii’s story of witches coming to the rescue of an ailing forest strikes home for the episode in which the child learns the ropes, with sound advice, of course. From an eager apprentice, she grows into a real little witch who can cast her own spell. And that’s just about enough, for this forest at least. Chiaki Okada’s delicate artwork mesmerizes with expression in detail while leaving much room for imagination – those blisters turning into seeds is where she worked her magic.

No cackling, menacing fingers, crooked noses, eyeballs, bats, cobwebs, or spiders. But an endearing witch’s tale with a wisdom that we sometimes overlook – working magic takes time, effort, and heart. And of course, there is the bit about the forests as well.

Title:『ちいさな魔女とくろい森』(Chiisana majo to kuroi mori, lit. The little witch and the black forest)
Text by Mutsumi Ishii, illustrated by Chiaki Okada
Publisher: Bunkeido, 2019

You can almost hear it


Book review, from Tokyo – Rain. I remember those days huddled up indoors, safely away from the seemingly endless rumbling. Peering through the windows at those blinding white streaks crackling across the sky. Walking around outside in those suddenly leaky shoes and soggy socks that squish with every step. Drenched clothes that stick to the skin, and those drippy trousers that strangely feel a whole lot heavier. None of that in Yuko Ohnari’s『どしゃぶり』(Doshaburi, lit. Downpour), a charming story of a boy meeting a sudden downpour right in front of his house.

He is on his way out, stepping gingerly over the burning porch, when he spots a towering gray cloud floating this way. The first drops begin to fall. Pitter, patter, plop. That’s a big one! The smell of rain blends in with the smell of the ground. And then the skies open…

The boy opens his umbrella. Dop. Dup. Bip. Bop. Bup. Bop. Duppity dop. Bup bop bup bup bop bup bruuuup. Bap bap bup bup braaap. It has become a drum!

“It’s so noisy!” He shouts. The rain falls harder. Faster. He notices a cacophony of sounds around him. The trees, the grass, the ground, the roofs. It’s the rain! In full voice! And he sure can hear it.

Arms outstretched, he feels the rain. He kicks off his shoes and joins in the fun. Swish! There goes a puddle! Plomb! And another one! He stops and tilts his head upwards. The rain bounces off his head. Glides across his forehead. Slides down his cheeks. Swirls round his ears. Washes down his hair and neck.

And then it’s over. As quickly as it came. The entire street is dripping wet. The cars. The houses. The boy too, of course. Refreshed. Cooled down. A wide smile on his face. That was great! “Come back again sometime,” he says.

The text is, quite simply, noisy. Not exactly easy to read, but fast, loud and fun. This picture book about a boy in the rain fascinates me because Koshiro Hata’s artwork alone could not tell the entire story. We see the rain fall. The umbrella open. The water strike and drench the boy. The boy kicking and jumping into puddles. And we also see him smile. But that is only half the story. Ohnari’s text tells us how the boy hears the rain, speaks to it, plays with it, and at the end, he says goodbye to the passing shower.

That’s not the only connection. Midway through the book, the boy stands hunched in the barrage of falling rain. On the last page, the boy holds his umbrella up to the shower in the bath. On both pages, you can almost hear the sounds again. Even without the help of any text.

Sometimes, we are not so lucky with rain, with floods and drought and the recent extreme weather conditions. But the joy of playing with water doesn’t really change, and this book certainly captures it well. In the rain, without the rumbling thunder and lightning flashes of course.

 

Title:『どしゃぶり』(Doshaburi, lit. Downpour)
Text by Yuko Ohnari, illustrated by Koshiro Hata
Publisher: Kodansha, 2018

Since that day


Book review, from Tokyo – The Great East Japan Earthquake struck more than eight years ago. The impact was felt not just physically. It was a day when a fundamental change began, and continues unabated. Just recently, the decision was made to decommission the nuclear power plant next to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi.

In the preface to『あの日からの或る絵とことば』(Ano hi kara no aru e to kotoba, lit. Pictures and words from a day since then) picture book editor Daisuke Tsutsui brings together 32 children’s book creators who tell their own stories from the day. Readers are treated to one more, in the preface reserved to the driving force behind a book of artworks interspersed with contemplative worded entries.

In the preface, Tsutsui expresses a view I share, that the content of some picture books has changed. Bolder, filled with life, addressing death, and giving space to images that were once thought to be frightening. Meanwhile, others have become more sensitive, carefully portraying the details of our daily lives and those moments to cherish. In compiling this book, Tsutsui hopes readers will identify with some of the ideas in those pages and reflect on their own thoughts since that day.

Here are some parts from four essays among the entries spread across 130-odd pages.

Yuki Sasame’s poem 『よごしてはいけない』 (Yogoshite ha ikenai, lit. We must not dirty) starts off expressing a gratitude to nature (god). “While humans may be the ones to cultivate the fields and refine the grains, only the gods (nature) can make them grow. Such gifts of the gods (nature) must not be tainted by human desire.” And of course, she goes on to stress the need to stop polluting the land, the air, the oceans, the rivers, that give us our vegetables, fish, meat, and food, because why should we make ourselves and our children suffer as a consequence?

mirocomachiko’s 『いきものとしてのわたし』(Ikimono toshite no watashi, lit. Me as a living thing) reflects on her plight as a weak creature, lamenting her struggle to even find a sanitary napkin in Tokyo in the aftermath of the quake, while apologizing to her late cat for not realizing earlier how it detested visits to the hospital and letting it finally go peacefully. And how she puts her energy into painting to live true to herself and start recovering her strength as a living being.

In 『机の下 柱時計の中』(Tsukue no shita hashira dokei no naka, lit. Under the table, in the grandfather’s clock), Kenji Oikawa recalls ducking under his desk, an act that brought him back to his school days, to an evacuation drill. And then back further, into the Brothers Grimm’s “The Wolf and The Seven Little Goats” where only the one in the grandfather’s clock was miraculously spared. Their stories, he says, are sometimes cruel, with the innocent made to suffer. Not unlike the ferocity of nature.

Across several essays, there was an appreciation that we just happen to be alive, to survive in this time and age. Yasumi Kato’s expresses in『あんぱんと牛乳』(Anpan to gyuunyuu, lit. A red bean bun and milk) that we are alive in this particular time in our unfolding history of disaster, pollution, attacks, and conflict. In her short essay, she recounts her bewildering, sudden craving for a red bean bun and milk right after the quake. And her realization that those brightly lit nights of slumber were an unneeded habit brought from her upbringing. She continues “there is so much that is unnecessary. Since then, I reflect on things around me more often. Where is this water from? What is this dish made of? Where was it made? Who did the cooking? What did people do when this didn’t exist? What did we do before we had cling film?”

This somewhat parallels a point in mirocomachiko’s essay. “If we go along with the flow of this world that we have created, the days will be filled with excessive, unnecessary worries. And we would gradually lose the power that we actually need to live.”

So what is the excess that consumes this power? Kato offers another thought. “Many living things feed on something, pass motion, and leave offspring. The oceans are polluted, and since we cannot fish anymore, the shells and fish just keep growing in number. This is akin to inheriting dirty oceans. Or so I read somewhere. And it continued, must humans also be this way?”

Leaving the open question, she returns to her title. A red bean bun and milk is a combination that the police often equip themselves when keeping an eye on a suspect, well at least in Japanese dramas and movies. Essentially, supplies for the long haul. Certainly an initial hunch that falls not far from the target.

The essays and contributions allowed me to contemplate the fundamental shift I felt from that day. That creators of children’s books considered these issues in similar ways gave me the chance to collect my thoughts, and that gave me hope. Hope that the change that started from that day will carry on. And that stories like Hisanori Yoshida’s attempt to capture the strength of life and the human spirit in 『希望の牧場』(Kibou no bokujo, lit. The Ranch of Hope) are being heard.

Title: 『あの日からの或る絵とことば』(Ano hi kara no aru e to kotoba, lit. Pictures and words from a day since then)
Edited by Daisuke Tsutsui with illustrations and photos by 32 children’s book creators
Publisher: Sogensha, 2019

That person?


Book review, from Tokyo – Remember when you had no choice but to team up with that person for something? Well, in life, we will have some moments with people we aren’t quite comfortable with. Some we prefer to forget. Others maybe more fondly remembered.

On its spine, Noriaki Tsujimura’s 『あいつとぼく』 (Aitsu to boku, lit. Him and me) already says a lot. In Japanese, “boku” is, well, just plain old “me” but “aitsu” is normally used to refer to someone who “I’d rather stay away from”, “isn’t exactly my type”, “that person”. You get the idea.

This story of “me” being paired together with “him” for a three-legged race is coupled with Toshikado Hajiri’s colourful spreads and facial expressions that jump at you straight off the page. Tsujimura takes care to put us in “my” shoes and spells out “my” thoughts in words.

From the start, lil’o “me” already seems scared of the sight of “him”. “He” is loud and brash, doing things “his” way, while “I” stay indoors with “my” friends, engrossed in a game of ping-the-eraser-off-the-table. During PE, the teacher lines the class up by height, pairing “him” with “me”, for the three-legged race at the annual sports day. “He” decides that “we” step out on our outer leg. It’s not working. No matter how much practice, “we” keep falling over.

Throughout the entire book, Tsujimura uses very few names. One is Mayumi, the name of “his” sister.

When practicing on the eve of sports day, Mayumi falls and hurts herself. Something happens. Legs bound together, “we” dash across the field. Fast. Without falling over. For the first time. As “he” piggybacks her off to the nurse’s room, “he” leaves a parting shot, suggesting to step out on the inner foot – something “I” suggested before.

The next day, the race ends in a flash. Fast but not fast enough. “I” wanted to run some more, but that bond around “my” leg had been removed too quickly. 

“He” wants to race together again next year, but “we” might not be in the same class then. During recess, “he’s” at it again. But this time, “he” looks this way and flashes a V-sign with that big wide grin of “his”. And “I” return a rather sheepish one.

That sheepish smile at the end seems to say, “Perhaps he’s not as scary as he seems.” Never once referring to him by name, from the start, the meek boy keeps a safe distance. But by the end, the two boys have formed a kind of bond. Not best of friends just yet, and that’s just fine.

 

Title: 『あいつとぼく』(Aitsu to boku, lit. Him and me)
Written by Noriaki Tsujimura, illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri
Publisher: PHP Institute, 2015

Already available in Korean from Scola (Wisdomhouse Publishing Co., Ltd.)

Work in progress


Book review, from Tokyo – That step into parenting is, well, while much documented, very much unknown territory. Even for an old hand, no two children are exactly alike, but some things will stay more or less the same.

From birth, sniffing up that newborn fragrance, anxiously cheering their first steps, quietly leaving them to wobble on ahead on their bicycles, bidding them off to school, facing down the teen rebel, enjoying that first paycheck treat, meeting their choice of a lifetime partner, maybe getting to transition into parenting seniority, and perhaps gaining the mantle of grandparent-hood.

Much of these parenting milestones are picked up by comic artist and father-of-two Shinsuke Yoshitake in 『ヨチヨチ父 とまどう日々』(Yochi yochi chichi – tomadou hibi, lit. Wobbly toddly dad – those dithery days).

In 55 signature musings, Yochi yochi chichi is littered with illustrated reflections from the everyday challenges of a dad as a child’s first non-mum entity to those desperate hunts for diapers. He also laments how dad-dad non-talk doesn’t feel quite the same as free mum-mum chatter.

He puts a dad-spin on a non-dad view of the most mundane events – a dodgy guide to the wide world, his child’s occasional fan, the ways dad tries to keep literally in the picture, and the gratitude of finally landing a place of comfort at the in-laws, along with no lack of kid-related topics for conversation.

Underpinning each episode are expectations, from his boss, co-workers, family, wife, and children, and the pressure to satisfy them partially or simply fall hopelessly short. These create the perfect chance to introduce the Yoshitake family teaching – take life a step at a time and learn from those who are more successful, so that one’s peak is always now or ahead. This contrasts to setting a fast pace, peaking early in life, but falling sharply and ending up frustrated at not being able to fulfill one’s expectations of life.

Despite several readings, I remained slightly puzzled by cover flap that said “papa ha kyoukan, mama ha rakudan“, which loosely means, “dads empathize, mums despair”. One day, I came to realize that this could be interpreted as how dads are often let off for being “dad”, but mums would feel let down instead. Behind that is the expectation mothers bear as parents, the need to cover for dad’s parenting inadequacies, and do much more, including work.

In Japan, I have learned that a child’s education brings greater parenting burdens. Finding a preschool opening eats away at the mental fabric of cities teeming with young dual income families. The huge waiting lists are proof of the stress parents face at each entry window. Having to maintain cash flows without adequate childcare support simply means choosing not to have children.

And then with school comes PTA and those parent-led or -participation groups, committees, organizations and communities today often chaired by selfless working mothers. Fathers silent, invisible. Almost as if visibility at routine meetings might brew a strange kind of pressure to take on more. What then for their wives and children. And for those ready to swim against the tide, who knows what expectations lie in wait. I’ve seen dad-only dad-led groups, but those are voluntary, ultimately for the willing.

Such episodes don’t appear in Yochi yochi chichi. Perhaps Yoshitake was merely speaking from experience. Maybe it is one of the many reasons for the disdain implied in the cover flap. But probably we would all be better off seeing through and breaking down all those hidden expectations, dispelling unnecessary stress and pressure, for a parent will always be a work in progress. I appreciated the kindness and forgiveness as a new parent, and this book certainly affords parents a little kindness that goes a long way toward helping the village raise a child.

 

Title: 『ヨチヨチ父 とまどう日々』(Yochi yochi chichi – tomadou hibi, lit. Wobbly toddly dad – those dithery days) by Shinsuke Yoshitake
Publisher: Akachantomamasha, 2017

The numbers behind the math


Book review, from Tokyo – Like math? I do. I’d gladly spend my afternoon proving a math truth to someone interested (if I remember how), and I actually enjoy the mental workout from making those functions work for me in Excel. Well, imagine the joy I found reading Taro Gomi’s 『さんすうくんがやってくる』(Sansuukun ga yattekuru, lit. Here comes “math boy”).

A kid who simply lives and breathes math, Sansuukun spews out numbers at every chance – counting friends at the park, dividing up the strawberries for everyone, analyzing the performance of the little league team and their odds of winning the title, it all comes so naturally.

When his friends show any hint of interest, or even when they don’t, Sansuukun rattles on – area, volume, energy, units of time, temperature, even energy. The calculations get more and more complex, but the kid sure knows how to show that math pervades many parts of our lives.

Sansuukun is cool, but not really much fun. Counting at the park isn’t quite like playing together, besides Sansuukun gobbled up the remainder of the strawberries after dividing them up equally for his friends.

Other than being mostly neutral (except when it comes to his favorite things, like strawberries), he gushes math wisdoms. For instance, he reminds us that a score on a test is merely a number derived from marking someone’s answers to the test, and it does not actually indicate how intelligent that person might be. What clarity of thought – super cool kid (especially if you didn’t score well on that test)!

He also shares how the clarity of numbers can sometimes mislead – a tiny frog and an elephant can both be counted as one animal despite their obvious differences. And of course, he readily admits that there’s no way he could count all the stars in the entire universe, even if he could come up with a pretty far out estimate. Nice and clear, not unlike math.

A picture book for three to five year-olds littered with numbers, this fun, inquisitive look at a cool but weird kid who just sticks to his math, shows us how we use numbers to create numerical representations of our myriad observations. As numerical fact derived using specific methods, on their own, they possess neither positive nor negative nuances. The more complicated the calculation, the less apparent is the clarity. Numbers gain meaning with analysis and our perceptions. Like how our brains seek patterns, we use numbers to help us make some sense of our lives.

So let’s not get too carried away or bothered by those sometimes arbitrary values, and as Sansuukun’s friends would say, let’s remember to have some fun together while we’re here!

 

Title: さんすうくんがやってくる (Sansuukun ga yattekuru, lit. Here comes “math boy”) by Taro Gomi
Publisher: Gakken Plus, 2006

Penguins and suits


Book review, from Tokyo – Penguins look like they wear tuxedos. That black and white dress and its assumed importance plays a part in adding to the fun of watching them wobble and hop on land, and then rip through the waters with ease. This connection is open to play, offering good contrast and effect.

Satoe Tone might not have intended to, but 『ペンギンかぞくのおひっこし』 (Pengin kazoku no ohikkoshi, lit. The penguins are moving) does it effortlessly. It tells the story of, well, our avian friends looking for a new place to call home.

The home of this family of 84 is shrinking, so they decide to embark on a journey. In their bowties and top hats, the birds ride the waves on a breakaway iceberg, first venturing South ―I hear there are clear blue seas there, says one. But they find themselves swimming through dark, murky waters.

They then go East, West, and finally North, seeking grasslands teeming with snails, yellow fields of towering dandelions, and forests filled with singing birds. They were disappointed each time, by factories and their billowing chimneys, a bleak gray expanse of sand, and a land of barren trees. Well, no place for us on Earth, they thought.

And so they hop into their balloons and set off for the moon. There the penguins are struck by the sight of the lovely, perfectly round, luminous, blue planet, and decide to return home.

Perched in a tree, they take their hats off to collect dandelion seeds, committed to doing something ―anything― for their beautiful planet.

To drive home the obvious message, Tone ends with a note. The penguins symbolize the first 84 signatories to the Kyoto protocol in 1997. Some countries chase economic progress and lose sight of its impact on the environment, but everyone can do their part ―walk, conserve water and energy― to reduce global carbon emissions.

A simple story for children with a call to do all we can, however small, to stop global warming. Tone uses vivid colours for the worlds the penguins dreamed of, contrasting them starkly with the darkish, gray tones of those they end up in. Flushed in white, the final page conveys both the call to action and hope for building a cleaner, brighter future.

Its funny how sometimes we miss the woods for the trees, or need a reminder of what sits right under our noses. Like the penguins who decide to move, before realizing that the only place for them is, well and truly, this planet we all call home. Well, who else should clean up after but ourselves?

Title: 『ペンギンかぞくのおひっこし』
(Pengin kazoku no ohikkoshi, lit. The penguins are moving) by Satoe Tone
Publisher: Shogakukan, 2017
Translated from the Italian original, also available in Spanish.