Thicker than water


Book review, from Singapore – Sharon Ismail’s What Sallamah Didn’t Know (2007) tells the heartwarming story of a girl growing up in a kampung (Malay for village) with the people she knew as her family, but later finds out that some things are not what they seem. Painting scenes of life in Singapore from a bygone era vivid in largely monotone palettes, Khairudin Saharom places his illustrations at a comfortable yet accessible distance, rousing both nostalgia and imagination.

The story begins in the night. A sleepy newborn girl bundled in white cloth is given away to a Malay family. We are told that other families in the village had seen this before, and that the receiving family would magically have a new member the next morning.

This new member is named Sallamah.

Sallamah grows up with her siblings in a Malay family. She has a kind elder sister, Muna, who always looks out for her, and a mischievous elder brother Dollah who always picks on her.

At the age of twelve, Singaporeans get their identity cards, or ICs. As a child, I remember this year of my life well – preparing for PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination), a centralized entrance exam for entry into secondary education, that big BCG vaccination needle, finally seeing the last of someone in class, having to part with best friends, and the customary rite of getting my IC, my official photo ID with information based on my birth certificate.

For Sallamah, this rite of passage throws her into confusion – she receives the card of a Chinese girl with an unfamiliar address. Dazed and lost, she stumbles into a game of marbles that Dollah was on the verge of winning, and he says something that strikes deep into her heart. Unable to sleep that night, she overhears her parents talk about not telling the children know.

She turns to her elder sister, who reveals her memories of that night many years ago. Sallamah then realizes that her siblings, and some other children around her, did not really look like their parents either. What she knew and saw was that they lived together, played together, fought with each other, laughed and cried, like children, like family.

Touched by this simple truth that draws on the joys of having family and family life, Sallamah’s story also reminded me that we do not need blood ties to share such moments together.

Adults choose who to marry, to become family. Blood ties are created with offspring. Those lineages continue with children bringing together two formerly separate families, but children have neither the choice of which family to grow up in or of who to have as siblings or parents. That is where, I believe, lies the roots of parents’ responsibility to their children, and how they fulfill that is a journey the family takes together. Simply taking the blood out from the equation does not change it; blood ties are not essential, it is, essentially, a choice.

For Sallamah, her Chinese birth parents chose to give her away, because they had too many mouths to feed, and she was a girl, after all. Because they found this kind Malay couple in a far-off village, Sallamah was able to grow up in the shelter and guidance of her loving parents, the comfort and company of a gentle elder sister, and a place among bickering siblings, the only family she ever knew.

In relation to adoption, in Japan, I hear of a movement to help working parents look out for children, to build a caring community to help nurture the country’s next generation while parents work. The idea is comforting but also worrying because of the inkling that it might fester misguided thoughts of letting parents stay at work and leaving their children to others in the community. Perhaps what it does is to propose an actual, proper safety net, one that Kore-eda’s Shoplifters seemed to promise, but a public movement telling people to do so would have raised some alarm bells. It certainly made me think of social pressure, norms and morals.

Sallamah also prompted thought of how I spend time with my closest and dearest in my busy life. It paints the home as a safe harbour to return to, for company, sympathy, relaxation and a good recharge after a long day’s toils. For this working parent, this is a seemingly insurmountable goal , and at the moment more of an occasional, fleeting hurrah than any hint of a permanent sanctuary. Home is proving to be a marathon, an extended work-in-progress that might just be its own end product some day.

Littered with snippets of Singapore’s past that still ring relevant today, Sallamah has also started filling a gaping gap of images of old Singapore in a growing collection. Surely, their place on my shelves will grow, hopefully as quickly as the country’s urban landscape changes.

 

Title: What Sallamah Didn’t Know
by Sharon Ismail, with illustrations by Khairudin Saharom
Publisher: Candid Kids, 2007
Malay, simplified Chinese, and Tamil language editions launched 2015 under the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism.

(I had the pleasure of hearing Sharon Ismail speak at AFCC 2018 about writing for multicultural readers, where she mentioned this book and the myth of blood being thicker than water, which led to the title of this post. This review is based on a reading of the Chinese edition of the book.)

Looking to the stars


Book review, from Tokyo – Japan’s drizzly season bridging spring and summer officially ended in Tokyo in June for the first time, with one day to spare. With libraries having renewed their selections ahead of time, I found a slightly different tale of Tanabata (七夕), celebrated on 7 July in Japan, but based on the same date in the lunar calendar in Chinese tradition. Retold by Touru Tsunemitsu through Takaaki Nomura’s signature woodblock-print illustrations, 『たなばたにょうぼう』(Tanabata nyoubou, lit. The tanabata wife) tells a lesser-known version of the tale, rooted in a fox’s advice, given twice, to a peasant.

The first time was after he spared the fox’s life when he found it hiding in a barn. Go down to the river, it said. The peasant was skeptical, but did as he was told. Hanging on a branch by the river was a beautiful, delicate piece of cloth. Puzzled but pleased by his find, he brings this home.

Later that day, a girl named Tanabata comes round asking for her celestial dress, but he denies any knowledge of this. Living together, they eventually marry, and Tanabata gives birth to a boy.

One day, the boy finds a strange-looking box in the cupboard and shows it to his mother. Having found her celestial dress, she could stay no longer, taking her child with her to heaven.

The fox then returns to the despairing father with advice. Build some wings and I will send you to heaven, it said, and it barked as loud as it could to send the man with wings soaring through the sky.

Reunited in heaven, all is well until the Heavenly Mother sets repeated trials for the man to pass in order to stay on. The first test is to lug a huge rock back from the mountains. The second is to scatter three bushels of seeds, only to instruct him to gather every single one the next day. The third is to tend the melon patch.

For each test, Tanabata gave her husband sound advice: the rock is made of paper so bring it back as if it were heavy, bury the bushels intact and retrieve them the next day, and never eat even a single melon no matter what happens. The dutiful husband passed the first two trials comfortably, but Tanabata was worried about the third – the man would have to fight the desire to quench his thirst under the hot sun.

Inevitably, he takes one. It pops open, starting a chain reaction of all the other melons in the patch. As the man is washed away by the flood, Tanabata shouts repeatedly over the gushing waters to meet on the seventh day of the month, but the man hears this as the seventh day of the seventh month. The flood creates the Milky Way, and the couple would only meet once a year, as we know today, on the seventh day of the seventh month.

Tsunemitsu’s retelling offers a slightly different version of a familiar tale, where I see the tricky fox as the chief architect and the man falling to his opportunistic nature in the end despite his wife’s repeated advice.

Ahead of Tanabata, I often see wishes written on colourful strips of paper tied to bamboo branches. These have always remained somewhat unfamiliar, but now I know from Tsunemitsu’s afterword that the tradition was started by terakoya (temple schools) during the Edo period to encourage the pursuit of scholarly desires and ambitions.

 

Title: 『たなばたにょうぼう』(Tanabata nyoubou, lit. The tanabata wife)
Retold by Touru Tsunemitsu, illustrated by Takaaki Nomura
Publisher: Doshinsha, 2017

Your friendly local bookstore


Book review, from Tokyo – Known for his short, whimsically philosophical picture books that normally feature children, Shinsuke Yoshitake’s 『あるかしら書店』(Arukashira Shoten, loosely translated as “Chance bookstore”) (POPLAR Publishing, 2017) serves up a hefty 103-page chapter comic on that friendly local bookstore where you can take your chances on finding something different.

A balding moustachioed man wrapped in standard apron attire goes about tidying the shelves, entering data into his laptop, lining up new stock, or munching through a snack, a routine broken by the odd customer who pops in to ask “Would you happen to have a book on such-and-such a topic, by any chance?”

Each customer comes in with a slightly unusual request, from books on book events, books on booklover traits, books on book-related work, books on famous places related to books, books about books, to one that the customer recalls the story but not the title. The bookseller works his magic, diving into his memory and through the store to pick out several that fit those descriptions. In the ensuing booktalk, he introduces his selection.

Some of the stories are quite hilarious, my favourites being: A bookshelf curator who goes around convincing people to part with their impeccably-arranged selections, along with the bookshelves; the fate of end-of-life books from dissection to reuse of their tangible parts and intangible essences for future creations; bookstore weddings for book lovers, from re-enacting that unforgettable reaching-for-that-same-book moment to the customary book toss; people who simply like stating for a fact that they love books, love the smell of books, stacking books, reading books, chewing on bookmark straps, among the myriad of book lover types; and a fiendishly clever book detective who apprehends errant book lovers by reading their minds after a quick forensic glance of their bookshelves.

The customer leaves with a smile, cuddling another prized find retrieved by the friendly, knowledgeable bookseller. I should just try walking into any old bookstore and ask for some sort of book, and wait in anticipation for what I might get introduced to (or not). The chance to just hear what stories the bookseller has to share is something online retailers will find hard to match, and perhaps one big factor behind the reported increases in sales at independent bookstores in the US.

The book left me deeply satisfied, that the need for those conversations between booksellers, librarians and readers, and the wondrous places, characters and stories we encounter in the worlds portrayed in books, remained intact. Besides being fun to just flip through and reread anytime, as we devote more and more time to our digital devices, the stories in this little bookstore are a timely reminder of how much we stand to gain from reading and sharing stories with others, which we can never hope to make up for with any number of clicks in between.

 

Title: 『あるかしら書店』 (Arukashira Shoten, loosely translated as “Chance bookstore”, arukashira is a phrase used to ask “(Would you) happen to have”)
Author: Shinsuke Yoshitake
Publisher: POPLAR Publishing, 2017

『あるかしら書店』 is a commemorative publication to mark the 70th anniversary of POPLAR Publishing, and a compilation that blends new artwork with that created for other publications.

If that building were to speak


Picture book review, from Tokyo – When we speak of Hiroshima today, a site that has become a part of human history  stands apart from the city’s food, its produce, and culture. The UNESCO Heritage Hiroshima Peace Memorial, covers what is today known as the A-bomb dome. Standing on the bank of the river for more than a century, its presence alone tells a story.

Hiroshima resident and poet Arthur Binard gives it a voice in 『ドームがたり』 (Doumu gatari, lit. Dome story / Dome speaks) (Tamagawa University Press, 2017), illustrated by Koji Suzuki.

Affectionately known as just “Dome” by Hiroshima people, Dome starts off by greeting the reader, thanking us for dropping by to visit. Like a seasoned speaker, it points out the slight inaccuracy of the name of the nearby tram station, before introducing itself. Fathered by Czech designer Jan Letzel, it was built in 1915 to showcase Hiroshima goods and produce. It had a few other names before “Dome”, whether it was goods or industry, there was always a part of it that was “Hiroshima”. That was until Japan went on the road to militarization, war broke out, and people came to talk about doing things “for the country”.

Dome recalls, as a cicada flew by in the height of summer 1945, an American plane dropped something that cracked open overhead in a blinding flash. The cicada and “Hiroshima” were destroyed that day, Dome says, and since then many things have become very clear through its airy skeleton head.

It sees the world as a makeup of particles. Radioactive particles, it explains, are like teeny tiny shards of glass. Glass hurts, but these particles are so tiny that we cannot feel them, even as they keep buzzing and zapping. Dome also reminds us of the Makurazaki typhoon that struck a month later, washing much of the radioactive particles into the ocean, sending them buzzing across the seas. Further afar, it sees the many particle islands and mountains formed in the course of tests all over the world, and discharge from contraptions humans built to harness the power of this relentless zapping.

How long do these particles continue to buzz and zap? Dome wonders, but hopes that the birds and other friends who visit don’t get hurt by some particle lingering in some dark corner of its bare frame.

After Dome tells its story, Binard provides an epilogue to explain the relationship between Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239, which were respectively used in the warheads of the two bombs that fell on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki three days later. He also reminds us of the significance of the plague engraved with “e=mc2”, which is a result of US censorship of the nuclear bomb, and the world order dominated by the nuclear powers ever since.

Nearly 7 years since the tsunami hit Fukushima Daiichi, I found this picture book drawing clear links rooted in nuclear power, something that some have tried and failed to harness. Today other nations are conducting nuclear tests for energy sources and consumption underpin industry, trade, affluence and economic growth. This trend of thought seems set to continue in the near future, at least, as calls for a return of morality in economics grow. Therein lies the need to share Dome’s story and Binard’s commentary for future generations.

 

Title: 『ドームがたり』
(Doumu gatari, lit. Dome story / Dome speaks)
Text by Arthur Binard, illustrated by Koji Suzuki
Publisher: Tamagawa University Press, 2017

Sharing a moment


Book review, from Tokyo – Sometimes new, sometimes full. On the wax or on the wane. The silver celestial body that quietly shines through darkness is always way up there. Once upon a time, we raced to reached it, to plant a flag. Down here, we were treated to a view of our home planet from afar.

Scifi aside, many stories and practices abound about our moon. There is otsukimi, or moon-viewing, in Japan and the Mid-autumn Festival celebrations by the Chinese diaspora on the 15th day of the Eight lunar month. Both are accompanied with tales of beings on the moon – a rabbit pounding mochi in the former and Chang’e, who floated up to the moon after swallowing an immortal pill, in the latter. And then there is, of course, that man on the moon.

Our constant companion throughout countless nights. Calm, serene, just watching over us, quietly. Unlike its daytime counterpart, brilliant, brimming with energy and life. But what if it disappears one day? Will we notice? Will we remember that once a month, it vanishes and returns as a wafer-thin smile?

『わたし、お月さま』(Watashi, otsuki-sama, lit.”I’m the moon”) by Nanae Aoyama, illustrated by Satoe Tone, tells the story of the moon that is struck suddenly by a sense of loneliness and dives down to earth to find an old friend who shared a special moment. After descending, it is bounced about by kids like a ball, picked up by roaming creatures, and rolls across the ocean floor.

The moon finally comes by an old man sitting on a park bench with his granddaughter. By then the moon had been away for quite some time. “Has the moon forgotten all about us?” the girl asks, tears welling.

Granddad shares his secret – many years ago, he was the astronaut who shared a chocolate-glazed donut with the moon! The moon will return, he reassures.

Free from the shackles of loneliness, the moon flutters back up into the sky, joyous that the memory of that shared moment will continue with the now smiling child.

Gorgeously illustrated,『わたし、お月さま』brings us yet another story of the moon, somewhat like a parent, sibling, or friend who is always watching over us. A reminder to not take them for granted, and return the favour of watching over them while I can.

This year, mid autumn was on Oct. 4 (Wed.). The following day (16th day of the lunar calendar) is when the moon normally seems to be at its fullest.

Title: 『わたし、お月さま』
(Watashi, otsukisama, lit. I’m the moon)
Text by Nanae Aoyama, illustrated by Satoe Tone
Publisher: NHK Publishing, 2016

Told and retold, time and again


Book review, from Tokyo – My daughter came home from school one day and said, “We’re going to read 『いわたくんちのおばあちゃん』(Iwata-kun chi no obaachan, lit. Iwata-kun’s grandmother) soon in ‘kokugo‘ class,” adding that she had already read it in her textbook, and everyone that had said it was “totemo kanashii” (a really sad story).

Kokugo” (lit. national language) is a curriculum for teaching grammar and all those rules to set children off on the way to mastering Japanese. Incidentally, “kokugo” text is also used as daily read-aloud homework, sometimes for weeks on end.

Remember the days when we would just rush to finish homework, put it off till the due date, or end up forgetting about it? When this sombre tale is read at rocket speed by the most eager of beavers, the listener (me) is left puzzled, confused, and agitated. That is until, the fact hit home – it was homework.

After flipping through the textbook, I later found myself poring through this picture book that had to be brought over from another library.

『いわたくんちのおばあちゃん』 is based on the true story of a girl who survived the atomic bomb, told by her daughter to elementary school children, and then by a boy, who is her son’s school mate, to the reader. The boy calls her son Iwata-kun, and the girl in the story is Chizuko, Iwata-kun’s grandmother.

Written in Hiroshima-ben (dialect), the book starts with the school’s annual sports meet. In the usual red-versus-white matchup, Iwata-kun and the boy are on opposite sides, but when he runs his race, Iwata-kun roots for him all the same, because they are friends.

After the sports meet, they have lunch and take photos as usual, but Iwata-kun’s grandmother politely declines. The boy knows why.

He heard her story from Iwata-kun’s mother at school during “heiwa gakushuu” (lit. peace studies session). Iwata-kun’s grandmother’s home once stood near the Hiroshima Prefecture Products Exhibition Hall. The boy’s school is near today’s UNESCO World Heritage Atomic Bomb Dome.

During the war, Iwata-kun’s grandmother Chizuko was a high school student, the eldest of four siblings – one baby boy, one girl excited to soon be going to school, and Kayo-chan, Chizuko’s fourteen-year-old sister. They had prepared to leave Hiroshima for somewhere safer and had taken a family photo together in an empty house.

On August 6, 1945, Chizuko’s younger siblings stayed behind with her parents while she and Kayo-chan went out as usual to “help fight the war”. Chizuko to a canning factory a few kilometers away to the West in Nishikannon-cho, and Kayo-chan among 700 girls to clear space between houses along the main road nearby to stop fires from spreading. They left the house together that morning, smiling and waving goodbye.

As Chizuko chatted before starting work, at 8:15 am, the bomb fell. The factory was flattened. Her first thought was to run straight home, but when she saw people in pain fleeing toward her, she knew she could not go that way. She remembered the family rendezvous point and waited there, trembling. But they did not come. She did meet a relative.

The next day, Chizuko returned to the city to search for her family. She found here way to where she thought her home was, barely recognizable save the few kitchen tiles that remained. There she would find two shreds of cloth, one from her mother’s blouse, the other from her little sister’s dress, firmly pressed together between their charred bodies. There were another two. None of the 700 girls were ever found. On that day, Chizuko had become all alone.

Months after the war ended, the photographer found Chizuko and gave her the photo he had taken that day.

The book then gives us a two-page fold of the blue sky above a huge tree on the school grounds to prepare us for the boy’s closing promise — he will never start or fight in a war.

The adapted version does not mention Iwata-kun’s cheers or the boy’s ending pledge. Without the conversations during the sports meet or with the single relative that turned up at the rendezvous point, it keeps the essence of the thrice-told story to urge an outpouring of emotion.

With the conversations, the tree and the pledge, the picture book engages, offering depth, hope and purpose. Like the story, it should be told and retold, time and again.

 

Title: 『いわたくんちのおばあちゃん』
(Iwata-kun chi no obaachan, lit. Iwata-kun’s grandmother)
Text by Natsumi Amano, illustrated by Yuka Hamano
Publisher: Shufunotomo, 2006

A tale of a bear and a pot


Book review, from Tokyo – Retold by Shigeru Kayano and illustrated by Kaya Doi, Asunaro Shobo’s award-winning『アイヌのむかしばなし ひまなこなべ』(lit. An Ainu folktale  The pot that had nothing to do) brings readers into a picture book world of the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, now living in parts of Hokkaido and Russia.

Doi’s warm illustrations invite readers to a quick briefing by a bear kamui or god, which the Ainu believe reside in all things, living and inanimate, before he starts his story about a pot that had nothing else to do.

As a bear in the human world, the Ainu would hunt him, and he would be brought to the village to grace a joyous celebration. There the bear god would be mesmerized by a youth dancing with unbridled joy and glee, so much so that he would return to be hunted time and again just to see that young man dance once more.

The bear god soon became curious to find out who this mysterious dancer was. It was only after many celebrations that he finally realized that the youth was like himself a kamui, that of an unused pot that was spotlessly clean.

Thanks to the Ainu wife who had kept the pot so well, it had acquired a bright and effervescent mood. When the bigger pots were busy cooking, he would just get up and dance!

And so goes this simple story of a fundamental human wisdom – treating something well means it can and will someday become useful.

Title: 『アイヌのむかしばなし ひまなこなべ』
(Ainu no mukashi banashi   hima na konabe, lit. An Ainu folktale  The pot that had nothing to do)
Text by Shigeru Kayano, illustrated by Kaya Doi
Publisher: Asunaro Shobo, 2016
Winner of the 第64回産経自動出版文化省 産経新聞賞 (lit. the 64th Sankei Juvenile Literature Publishing Culture Award, Sankei Shimbun Award)
(as of date of post)