The littlest country


Book review, from Tokyo – A couple of months back, I chanced upon this picture book by the late David McKee translated into Japanese. I felt it was what I needed to read then, a time when tensions everywhere seemed to just escalate. And today I flip it open again, feeling very much same.

Translated by Chihiro Nakagawa into 『せかいでいちばんつよい国』(Sekai de ichiban tsuyoi kuni, lit. The world’s most powerful country) McKee’s The Conquerors (2004) tells a story of the President (“General” in the original) of the most powerful country who waged war on the rest of the world so that they could all live “happily in harmony”.

One by one, countries fell to the world’s largest and most powerful army. Until there was just tiny one. The littlest country. But to leave it unconquered did not sit well with the president. And so he sent an army to conquer it. When they arrived, the people welcomed into their homes! The president even got the largest house in the country, where he wrote home to his wife and son to pass the time.

With nothing to conquer, the soldiers spent their time chatting with the people, playing their games, hearing their stories, laughing to their jokes, learning their songs. But when they started helping out, the emperor sent them home and called for a fresh group of disciplined soldiers. But when these soldiers also grew lax, the emperor headed home, leaving a small contingent behind. As soon as the emperor left, these soldiers quickly changed into their civilian wear to lead normal lives.

The president led a homecoming victory parade on his homecoming, but when his son asked him to sing at bedtime, he sang a song from the littlest country.

It was interesting to see this comical president garbed like Napoleon I in contrast with the French emperor as various versions of Genzaburo Yoshino’s 『君たちはどう生きるか』(translated into English How Do You Live? by Bruno Navasky) was enjoying a sustained resurgence in Japan at the time.

This funny, simple story of war and conquest with underlying messages of inclusiveness and pacifism left me hoping that if only the powerful and more of us were a bit more like that littlest country, the world might be that bit more open and peaceful.

*Review based on the Japanese translation.

Title: 『せかいでいちばんつよい国』(Sekai de ichiban tsuyoi kuni, lit. The world’s most powerful country) translation by Chihiro Nakagawa, original by David McKee
Publisher: Mitsumura Educational Co., Ltd., 2005

From a 2x1m room


Book review, from Tokyo – This story began in a room. A private room in a hospital in Sapporo, Hokkaido. Mion Maeda, then a Primary 3 child, was warded again for tests and treatment for focal cortical dysplasia. This was another of her frequent but short-term stays since she was diagnosed with this neurodevelopmental condition when she was three. One day, as she rolled under the overbed table, she discovered messages scribbled on to its underside. Messages from children like herself who had been in that same 2×1 room. She felt the urge to write an essay despite her condition affecting her writing hand. The essay won the unanimous vote of the judges panel for the top prize for the 2020 Children’s Non-fiction Literature Contest held by Kita-Kyushu City. It also caught the eye of publishers Shogakukan, who reached out to her and brought in well-loved illustrator Koshiro Hata to work with her to create 『二平方メートルの世界で』(Niheihou meetoru no sekai de, lit. In a 2m2 world).

The book opens with a view of Sapporo’s famed main street to set the scene for the essay, which starts,

My name is Mion Maeda. I am a P3 student from Hokkaido.
The bed in my hospital room is about 2m long and 1m wide.
A curtain goes right round the bed.
When I’m here
, this is my world.
A place where I do everything – sleep, eat, play and study.

When she speaks of her family and her feelings, Maeda’s words hit home. Direct and unvarnished. Loneliness. From nuclear medicine diagnosis, where she and her mother have to be stay apart for an hour.
Fear. From the flurry of footsteps during the night shift that makes her think if she no longer has much time left to wonder what if, how come, or why.

It just happened to be me.

Who cannot move around too much before her tests. Who has to fast. Who has only rice, miso soup and onion slices for breakfast. Who is told she shouldn’t go on excursions because of her condition. Who just hates it all. Who wishes for just one day when she didn’t need to take medication. Who swallows those words before they are uttered. But who also knows that if she did, it would hurt everyone who is doing their best to help.

And so I keep it in.

One day, as she waited for her test, she rolled under her overbed table and found the scribblings of children like herself.

Yeah! I’m discharging tomorrow! 16 months is way too long!
Hooray! Congrats!

Keep on fighting!

I want eat everything!
Even natto!

Reop sucks!!
Fight!

I want to be healthy

Sorry for all the trouble mom

Hidden from sight were words from children who stayed there before her.
Children who also fought their own fight.
They spoke to her. And she knew she was not alone.

Someone once said to me, “You were chosen because you can overcome this.”
Don’t choose me.

She chose to share her story. Of her struggles in hospital.
Of finding those words. Of savoring each and every moment of her life.
To put it into words her realization of how wonderful it is to be alive.
For the chance to live the way only she can.

Sometimes solemn. Sometimes miserable.
A 9 year-old’s very real essay on life and her struggles that holds much for anyone to reflect on.
Ill or not.

Title: 『二平方メートルの世界で』(Niheihou meetoru no sekai de, lit. In a 2m2 world) text by Mion Maeda, illustrations by Koshiro Hata
Publisher: Shogakukan Inc., 2021

STV Video feature (in Japanese) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YBvE0iI2b3k

A story about a little sister


Book review, from Tokyo – A lone girl in a blue dress stands barefoot with her hands crossed behind her back. A doll in a similar attire lies face up beside her. A hand outstretched. When I saw the cover, I was drawn to the title, 『わたしのいもうと』 (Watashi no Imouto, lit. My little sister), thinking that it would have been a story about a little sister. Well, it was.

Keiko Ajito’s characteristic darkish, wispy lines on the cover sowed the seeds for the atmosphere of the story of a little sister’s suicide rooted in bullying. Only once throughout the entire book, do we see a page in lighter tones. Cheerful, faint, wistful, like a distant memory. From seven years ago. When the family moved to a new town. The little sister was then in Primary 4.

Miyoko Matsutani tells us that they spoke an unfamiliar accent. In school, the little girl was picked on for her shortcomings and her differences. She dished out lunch in class, but that was refused. In the end, no one even spoke to her. She ended up staying home, alone in her room, unable to eat, rescued from the brink only by her mother’s care and companionship. That fragile relief seemingly broken by the joyful voices of her classmates making their way to secondary school.

All this while we see her sorrow, loneliness, and isolation in dark pages. Crying in the playground with a lone withering flower. Sitting apart from her doll. Curtains drawn with a lone light inside. Ever since the bullying began, we almost only ever see the girl’s back, as if she had turned her back on the entire world.

The silent girl took to folding paper cranes. Endlessly until she was buried in them. Her mother folded paper cranes to try to understand what her daughter was feeling. Then one day, she was gone, leaving behind a short letter.

The kids that bullied me have probably forgotten about me.
I wanted to play with friends. I wanted to study.

In her end notes, Matsutani reveals that this book is based on a letter she received from the sibling. She warns us to remember that guileless actions and words can cause pain and suffering to others, and also offers advice to accept our differences to avoid friction and conflict, and notes how this is by extension the key to tolerance and peace.

In school, we had our nicknames. I did call others by their nicknames too. Some had less pleasing nuances, others were plainly repulsive. But never once did I feel that alone or isolated. However much one was targeted, we all had our groups to return to. Perhaps it was down to the acceptance of our differences that had been ingrained in a multi-cultural environment or the ambiguities of our own identities or vindications. Or our curiosity of those things that make us view others as different, that allow us to reach out, grab that extended hand, and pull it back from the edge.

I can see how bullying of an “other” thrown into a group can easily escalate when the group defines itself based on its specific differences from others and takes much pride in its exclusivity, such as in distinct national or cultural identities. But when its members start asserting themselves and recognizing the diversity within the group, it can and will evolve into a more inclusive and comfortable one for everyone. And perhaps then such a tragedy can be avoided.

Title: 『わたしのいもうと』 (Watashi no Imouto, lit. My little sister) text by Miyoko Matsutani, illustrated by Keiko Ajito
Publisher: Kaisei-sha Ltd., 1987

The value of a 100-yen adventure


Book review, from Tokyo – Have you ever wondered about money and where its worth lies? It can be a difficult question to answer because of the various perspectives we can approach it. Not about the business side of things or making a living, but about the nature of money itself. It’s probably common knowledge that people first started trading things for other things, or barter trade, and then began pricing them in pretty shells and precious stones, before value became tied to precious metals and fiat currency. And so here we are today with credit and electronic payments, on the cusp of the advent of digital currencies, stablecoins and whatever else is being mooted.

Well, how do you explain all that to a child?

Multi-talented Hirotaka Nakagawa’s 『100円たんけん』 (Hyakku-en tanken, lit. Exploring with a hundred yen) puts part of that story in perspective, that is through the eyes of a child in Japan, with Yoshiro Okamoto’s cheerful and familiar-looking style and characters drawing readers in to ideas that can sometimes be complex to depict. Especially the boy’s mischief, from the part where he pesters his mother for the one more thing he wants before their jaunt through the neighbourhood to find out what 100 yen can buy, to him donning a samurai wig, a pair of sunglasses, a flashy apron, and wielding a frying pan in one hand and a bucket in another in the ubiquitous 100-yen shop.

For all his playfulness, the boy listens carefully to his mother’s explanation on barter trade before being tasked to find what he can buy for a 100 yen in the most accessible of places – his own neighbourhood.

He visits the butcher, the cake shop, the fruits and vegetables stall, the fishmonger, and the 100-yen shop. At the butcher’s, he asks how much meat 100 yen buys. It’s not easy to quickly place how many finely sliced pieces of meat can be bought with a single coin, but the difference in the amounts of beef and pork presented to him by the kind butcher is immediately apparent. The boy contemplating his third place on the podium, behind the runner-up pig and the winning cow brought a few giggles.

He visits the shops in turn and the owners explain what a 100-yen coin buys – not really enough to fill the stomach. Well, he also visits the florist, and that is where he eventually decides to use his one coin to buy a flower for his mother and gets the most precious smile in return.

More than how the book conveys the idea of money and its value to its readers in a somewhat believable story, this book mischievously turns the idea of buying things on its head – per coin value, instead of buying whatever we want in weight or value as we are accustomed to. Restricting trades per coin may be the one rule that the mother enforces for their experiment, but it ends up stopping the boy from spending on needless things and letting him experience the value of spending wisely.

I sense a much deeper message for those with deeper pockets too, especially during a season of giving, don’t you?

Title: 『100円たんけん』 (Hyakku-en tanken, lit. Exploring with a hundred yen) text by Hirotaka Nakagawa, illustrated by Yoshiro Okamoto
Publisher: Kumon Publishing, 2021

Cake trees to tide over


Book review, from Tokyo – Autumn seems to have come early. The scorching mid 30 degrees Celcius heat has vanished miraculously, and I find myself in a lower 20s drizzly mist. Well, one could take solace in that the Obon holidays again welcomed the peak of summer in August, a period that coincides with the yearly ceremony to mark the date of end of World War II in Japan, which was again broadcast on TV, but this year during the Tokyo Olympics.

“The 15th of August, 1945” – this date starts each story in Akiyuki Nosaka’s The Cake Tree in the Ruins (Pushkin Press 2018, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori). Nosaka lived through the firebombing of Kobe and survived his family. An award-winning writer whose works which include The Grave of the Fireflies, which inspired the Studio Ghibli movie, Cake Tree is a collection of twelve short stories of his memories from his childhood. Its content is apparent in the original Japanese title 『戦争童話集』(Sensou-douwa shuu; Chuokoron-Shinsha, 2003, original edition 1980), literally “wartime children’s stories”.

What did Nosaka want his stories to convey? Well, they are certainly not your usual reading fare.

An oversized lovelorn whale who gets blown into bits by depth charges to protect his beloved, a similarly-sized submarine; a boy who loses his mother and his speech in shock and has to relearn it from his pet parrot; a mother who turns into a kite after applying her milk to soothe her son’s skin as they are engulfed in flames; an old she-wolf who finds the energy to protect a diseased Japanese girl abandoned by her fleeing brethren in China; a kamikaze pilot who takes a pet cockroach out on his last mission and leaves it with rations in his archaic plane’s cockpit on a barren beach; a POW who befriends a girl orphaned by firebombing, takes cover in a forgotten air-raid shelter, and runs off alone into the mountains, fearful of being discovered by civilians bringing news of the end of the war; the story of the cake tree in the ruins that grew from crumbs of Western cakes baked in wartime Japan, a tree that only children knew but the grown-ups never noticed; a keeper who escapes with the zoo’s elephant into the mountains, wandering back to a town burnt to the ground in their search for a new hiding place; a soldier who succumbs to starvation on a southern island but finds his way back to Japan and his mother through stories and folktales; a boy who finally comes to terms with his father’s death when his home bunker is finally filled; the children who deflate themselves to fill one last leather hydrogen balloon weapon and release it into the August sky; and the soldier who loved horses, followed one to the mountains after the barrack’s stable was bombed open, and decided to “quickly follow it in death” to keep its trust.

One line for each story is not enough to illustrate the emotions and thoughts that were aroused. With the exception of the POW’s humorous story, many of them end in death, whether by starvation, assault, flames, disease, or harakiri. However, I did not feel overly miserable nor distressed but instead felt enlightened to the many methods and falsehoods of propaganda and the absurd weapons devised as Imperial Japan reached the end of its tether. I also encountered a fact that I had trouble understanding when I first learned about it from my Japanese relatives – rice rationing continued until as recently as 1982, more than three decades after the war had ended. But more so, I read stories of what people had to do to survive (or die trying) and was pulled through the volume by the solace from the undercurrents of compassion and the humane, regardless of them being between humans or not, in the pages.

The title of this collection comes from the seventh in the volume, perhaps indicating a continuation of the first seven published as The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine (Pushkin Children’s Books, 2015). Perhaps the cake tree was a deliberate reference to Kobe, Nosaka’s hometown and a city famous for its Western confections, particularly the Baumkuchen, literally “tree cake” in German. Or perhaps the title alludes to creations like the cake tree with its sweet aroma of care and affection that help us tide over the most difficult of times.

Title: The Cake Tree in the Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2018

Picture poetry


Book review, from Tokyo – What do you get when you bring an illustrator a poem? You might just get a picture book. Apparently, that’s what happened with 『オサム』 (Osamu, a somewhat common name for a Japanese boy or man). On the cover is a gorilla holding a bunch of flowers to its nose, a little bumblebee buzzing near its brow. The French flap offers a hint – “When I tried to draw a good person, I ended up with a gorilla!” Those words belong to Hiroshi Abe, who drew the illustrations to Shuntaro Tanikawa’s words.

Curious, I turned the page.

It begins with a statement that is at once simple and profound.

ほかの生きものと ともにオサムは生きている

(Hoka no ikimono to tomo ni, Osamu ha ikite iru; lit. Osamu lives together with/among other living things.)

The book flips page after page into Osamu’s interactions with the other living things around him – children, other gorillas, neighbours, nature – and his temperament – quiet, gentle, kind, fun. He spends his birthday lying quietly on a shady grassy patch, looking somewhat happily to an owl and a chameleon perched on an overhanging branch. Osamu writes a letter to a teacher who taught him many years ago and bears a contented smile as he stands on all fours eyes closed among a bed of flowers of an ancestor’s grave – Osamu is grateful and respectful of those before him.

The book closes with

オサムは今日も つつましく生きている

(Osamu ha kyou mo tsutsumashiku ikite iru; lit. Osamu lives today (and everyday) humbly.)

Like many picture books, the beauty lies in the collaboration between pictures and words. Abe manages to express what is not in Tanikawa’s words, the interpretation often simple and beautiful. For instance, when Osamu visits an ancestor’s grave, we only see a bed of flowers, and Osamu’s quiet nature is expressed by him looking inquisitively at a bumblebee. There is no extravagant fanfare over a birthday nor tussles for supremacy. Even in action, Osamu imbued a sense of quiet and being at peace with all things around him, a good being enjoying a simple, humble life.

Like many a good book, another twist waited at the end.

There, I found a pleasant surprise – another poem by Shuntaro Tanikawa! In『ぼくのゆめ』(Boku no yume, lit. My dream; boku is normally used by boys but some girls today use it too), a grown-up asks “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The child replies “My dream is to become a good person.” When the grown-up pulls a frown and chides the child for not having a bigger dream, the child’s reaction is,

“I don’t need to be great

I don’t need to be rich

My dream is to be a good person

That’s what I think to myself without saying it out loud”

Trying to put the idea of ii hito or good person into words, Tanikawa wrote Osamu, the poem by the name of the good person he envisioned. And Hiroshi Abe drew inspiration from the quiet, gentle gorilla in Asahiyama Zoo, Hokkaido.

A book that reads from front to back and back again, these two well-loved children’s book creators bring us another precious book, this time a poetic one on enjoying the simple life as a good being.

Title: 『オサム』 (Osamu) text by Shuntaro Tanikawa, illustrated by Hiroshi Abe
Publisher: Dowa-ya Co., Ltd., 2021

Noodles for everyone


Book review, from Tokyo – Spaghetti, fettucini, ravioli, lasagna. Pho, pad thai, laksa. Ban mian, fish ball noodles, bak chor mee. Char kway teow, Hokkien mee. Udon, soba, ramen. Rice or flour, sometimes with egg. Shaved, sliced or pulled. Stir-fried or boiled. Soup or dry. Spicy or saucy. Dipped or dunked. There’s just so much variety, I have yet to try them all. I’m sure the inhabitants of Beaston in Jacob Kramer’s Okapi Tale are still cranking all sorts of noodly-things out from Noodlephant’s Phantastic Noodler, but it wasn’t before a struggle against a preying Okapi-talist.

Noodlephant had offered her invention up for everyone to use, and animals came to Rooville, turning it into Beaston. As she set sail to see the world in all its noodly diversity, an Okapi disembarked. He quickly eyed up the town’s assets, buying the Phantastic Noodler off the spiteful kangaroo mayor and building a factory to hire Beaston’s many to crank pasta for shipping, before using the money he made to snap up the shops, and then raise prices to make even more money. Noodlephant, of course, was oblivious to all of this until she spotted up a pack of farfalle from her hometown, which by then had lost the flutter of its butterflies. Returning home with Japanese geta clogs for her friends, after catch-up with some noodles (of course), they hatched a plan to clutter up the Okapi’s production line. Having achieved that, they put the ownership of the Phantastic Noodler to a vote, which was won by the many, and ascertained that the mayor had no right to sell the invention. Having won back their prized asset, Beaston impeached its partisan kangaroo mayor. The story ends with the Okapi eventually leaving to seek profits elsewhere.

Along with the fun and mirth imbued by Kramer, K-Fai Steele’s illustrations add visual references and colour to an already compact tale of the many triumphing over the greedy few. I was entertained by Noodlephant swaying to what seemed like a bon festival in Japan and taking in the sights reminiscent of China’s famed paintbrush landscape, but particularly loved the songs chorusing simple truths.

“To share in common all the things, That help us live throughout our days”
“…making decisions for the many, Not the few”
“Democracy’s for me’s and you’s”

Kramer might have intended it with all the pasta references, but I chuckled as I mouthed the title in Italian. A story not just to enjoy but also contemplate how democracy does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with capitalism, much less greed. It suggests, and I agree, that some things should be public, not privatized, and accessible to all. Can capitalism be harnessed, guided by morals and principles, as some seek to do today? Will development and policy be advised by the limits of our resources? Will we one day realize our place on this planet among its diverse forms of life? More questions for another story, another time.

Title: Okapi Tale by Jacob Kramer, illustrated by K-Fai Steele
Publisher: Enchanted Lion Books, 2020 (hardcover)

Just two minutes


Book review, from Tokyo – Ever wonder just how long is two minutes? 120 seconds. 1/30 of an hour. 1/720 of a day. Not very long is it?

My daughter picked up 『二分間の冒険』(Jun Okada, 1985; Nifun kan no bouken, lit. A two-minute adventure) from her school library, and it took us almost two months to finish. Well, there was the two-week return deadline and the new sanitization process, which prevented her from renewing it again immediately. So when she finally got her hands on it, we got to the end of this modern classic that is still popular with children (and has remained in print).

No wonder.

Imagine meeting a talking black cat, being invited to spare two-minutes for a game and warped into a fantasy world for it. That’s what happened to Satoru, a 6th grader who used his wits to escape the chore of preparing for a movie screening in the school’s multipurpose hall.

Drawn into a game on hide-and-seek with the cat that called itself dare ka (somebody), Satoru has to find the one sure thing in order to return to the real world. So here he was forced to call upon his wits to save himself.

Somebody didn’t mention a dragon. So when Satoru stumbled onto a strange village of children and unwittingly agreed to be dragon feed, he was paired with Kaori on what seemed a doomed journey north to the dragon manor. Smart and kind, not unlike a girl of the same name he knew from the other world, Kaori guides them faithfully to their destiny.

What did all this have to do with finding the one sure thing? He didn’t know, but he didn’t know how else he could proceed. So he went along and met the fearsome riddle-loving magic dragon. Satoru arrives at the answer, eventually. But not after finding a whole lot of other things. Fear. Courage. Affection. Solidarity. Friends. Victory. Joy. Sadness. All that in two magical, excruciating minutes.

More than 30 years on, this two-minute adventure has found another fan. And I’m quite sure it will mesmerize many more even if they didn’t like talking cats, old manors, magic dragons and perplexing riddles.

Title: 『二分間の冒険』 (Nifunkan no bouken, lit. A two-minute adventure)
by Jun Okada, illustrated by Daihachi Ota
Publisher: Kaisei-sha, Ltd., 1985

A dictionary for the imagination


Book review, from Tokyo – On a rare trip out to the city, I picked up a book. On the cover, a girl in yellow boots stands in shifting rain clouds, gazing up to the thin white streaks above as birds soar past. 『風のことば 空のことば 語りかける辞典』(Kaze no kotoba sora no kotoba – katarikakeru jiten; lit. Wind words, sky words – a read-out-loud dictionary), the title suggests – Can you hear what they are saying?

Published slightly over five years after his passing, this volume is a compilation of Hiroshi Osada’s comments on the children’s poems he picked for publication in the Yomiuri Shimbun between 2004 and 2015. Verses of sensitive and acute observations of nature, things, and the human sentiment are coupled with Hideko Ise’s signature illustrations to create a truly timeless collection.

Structured like a Japanese dictionary of the simplest things from asa (morning), ame (rain), itami (pain), oishii (delicious), kaze (wind), karada (body), pensiru (pencil), to a final entry for wa, wasuremono (something forgotten), each term has multiple verses addressing different aspects, not defining but expanding the term. Just like a handy dictionary to grow our imagination and our sensitivities.

For example, Pencil – Not a tool for people to write words, but a tool to bring people to words. To the pencil, the paper says, “Write me, write me”, and when you write, the words say, “read me, read me”.

It then extends seamlessly to writing – When you write with a brush, you will come to realize that writing means steadying your breath and channeling all your senses.

I certainly enjoyed being reminded of the most delicious taste as a child – a quick bite of a special dish before it is served. And that the two main ingredients of a tasty dish is someone to make it so and then someone to eat it so (delicious). Also, that a simple kind word lasts longer than any medication or treatment (pain). How walking in puddles after the rain is just like walking in the clouds (rain). How the wind gives the grass and trees their voices, and how the power lines howl in defiance on a windy day (wind). How you never misplace unimportant items but only those that are important, and how you’ll never forget the day you forgot something at school and went back for it when no one else was there (something forgotten).

And of course, the editors kindly remind us to read out loud to share this volume with those close by.

Title: 『風のことば 空のことば 語りかける辞典』(Kaze no kotoba sora no kotoba – katarikakeru jiten; lit. Wind words, sky words – a read-out-loud dictionary) by Hiroshi Osada, illustrated by Hideko Ise
Publisher: Kodansha Ltd., 2020

What has changed?


Book review, from Tokyo – The end of April in Japan normally heralds a long vacation. But things are different this year. Healthcare systems and workers face extreme stress as Covid-19 numbers continue to grow. For the public, Golden Week in Japan has become Stay Home week.

On TV, bullet trains are reportedly running at 0% passenger capacity. There are scarcely any cars on major highways and shopping areas are deserted. Nearer home, it has translated into fewer trips out – taking out the trash, brief walks, shopping for essentials. Public facilities like libraries and community centers are shut, but elsewhere it’s mostly business-as-usual with masks and at distance. Many eateries now do takeouts as well. Supermarkets remain busy. Some bulk-buy the advised 3-days worth of supplies. Staff headed for restocking saunter through socially-distanced shoppers in the aisles. Plastic boundaries hang between cashiers and shoppers.

Take a step away from human society, and I realized that it is already mid spring – the season when the natural world bursts to life. Fresh vibrant shades of green. Flowers. Yellow, white, pink, magenta, purple. Sometimes tinier than an asphalt pebble. Gusty winds. Fast moving clouds. Signs of the fluid tussle above. You can even hear the bugs chirping for summer.

All around the world, we’re seeing more of nature. And it’s not just the season. Clear skies over once-smoggy cities. Canals cleansed by the dearth in gondola traffic. Dolphins return to tourist-barren inlets. Neighbouring wildlife rest in lawns. Penguins roam empty aquariums. Lion herds lie on warm asphalt. For sure, the pandemic has hit humans and our society hard. But the silver lining is that our planet seems to be recovering. In just about six months at that!

Zoë Tucker’s Greta and the Giants (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2019) can never be a more timely read. Inspired by Greta Thunberg’s story and translated into Japanese by Yumiko Sakuma as 『グレタとよくばりきょじん』(Gureta to yokubari kyojin, lit. Greta and the greedy giants; Froebel-Kan Co., Ltd., 2020), the gist of this colourful, nature-loving piece is laid bare in the Japanese title – greed.

For too long, human society has been driven by the pursuit of economic development and progress, distanced ourselves from our natural environment, while others suffer under the weight of poverty or lose their habitats. Suggestive? Perhaps.

Zoe Persico’s illustrations from cover to cover paint Greta as a friend of the forest. Some greedy giants arrive to scamper around tirelessly, cutting down trees to build homes. But they then start building bigger and bigger cities, destroying forests and driving animals out of their natural environment. Greta starts her placard protest alone, but she soon finds friends. Confronted by Greta and her friends, the greedy giants frown, fidget nervously, and stomp their feet in agitation. Familiar? Maybe.

Well, the next page shows the greedy giants appreciating the simple things, slowing things down – actually enjoying life. And finally, they return to live with their natural environment. A happy ending for all.

Other than the ending, the similarities to real life are uncanny, except that our current stay-home situation is being enforced upon us by an invisible threat to our lives. Greta Thunberg’s movement remains an urgent undertaking. One that requires global coordination. One that the virus must not derail. Because our story continues. The effects in nature are there for us to see and learn precious lessons from. And we must surely realize our footprint already. Otherwise, this book will serve a kind reminder of our acts and its effects on nature.

 

This review is based on the Japanese translation of the original English title.

Title: 『グレタとよくばりきょじん』(Gureta to yokubari kyojin, lit. Greta and the greedy giants) by Zoë Tucker, illustrated by Zoe Persico, translated by Yumiko Sakuma
Publisher: Froebel-Kan Co., Ltd., 2020