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)

Learned something new


Book review, from Tokyo – Slightly over a month ago, I learned something new about Japan. Temples across Japan celebrate the Buddha’s birthday or hanamatsuri, literally the flower festival, on April 8 every year.

I learned about this from the afterword in 『花まつりにいきたい』(Hanamatsuri ni ikitai), a Hongwanji Publishing picture book by Kimiko Aman, illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri. Many Buddhists will soon celebrate this same occasion on the fifteenth day of the fourth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, which falls on May 10 in 2017.

Familiar with the festivities from my youth in Singapore (and the public holiday, of course), I’ve been puzzled at the lack of activity for this event in Buddhist Japan. According to Japanese sources, since Prince Siddhartha thought to have been born on the eight day of the fourth lunar month, the switch to the Gregorian system during the Meiji era brought the event to April 8. Meanwhile, in many South Asian countries, this date is the fifteenth day of the second month of the Indian lunisolar calendar, which somehow translates into the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. So after some mathematical time travel, I finally managed to catch the celebrations in Asakusa this year.

Early April is also sakura season, if not in Tokyo then probably somewhere else in Japan. “Hanamatsuri ni ikitai” literally translates into “I want to go to the flower festival (too!)”, the yearning hope of a sakura tree in full bloom. After calling out to the many who come near to admire its flowers, a boy somehow hears the tree and tells it that the time will come for it to join the celebrations. The imagery across the pages captures the essence of sakura, something that I have failed to do in my digital snapshots over the years.

Aside from the occasion serving as the backdrop to a magical story, I particularly enjoyed the bits of fun incorporated in the illustrations (look closely!), and the care taken to bringing the flowers to life on each page.

Title: 『花まつりにいきたい
(Hanamatsuri ni ikitai, lit. I want to go to the flower festival (too!))
Text by Kimiko Aman, illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri (more of his works here)
Publisher: Kyoto, Hongwanji Publishing, 2017

(Ed. Added link to illustrator’s website)

Herding on something overheard


Book review, from Tokyo – 『あわてんぼうウサギ』(Awatenbou usagi, lit. the jumpy hare) retells a familiar story of tale #322 of the Jataka Tales. One among the colourful canon of 547 stories of past incarnations of the Buddha, sometimes human, other times animal, it contains a very pertinent message for us today.

Retold for Japanese children by Motoko Nakagawa and illustrated by Bolormaa Baasansuren, the book ends with a page introducing The Jataka Tales and the moral of the story. The tale is known by at least two English titles, “The Timid Hare and the Flight of the Beasts” and “The Sound the Hare Heard”.

Mongolian illustrator Baasansuren adorns the animals with delicate shapes reminiscent of henna tattoos and gives all of them an endearing demeanor, adding an air of wisdom for the lion. When the animals take flight, they take our eyes as far as we can see, right across the pages.

As the story goes, a jumpy hare lying under a palm tree hears a loud, terrifying sound, as if the ground was breaking up. Without thinking twice, the jumpy creatre dashes off to the other end of the earth, spreading word of the terrible sound as it ran.

Soon other animals gather to form an impressive herd of beasts that flies across the pages. Only a lion’s mighty roar manages to freeze them in their tracks. Yet the animals remain worried.

When the lion asks who started running, each one points to the next creature in front, and standing right at the fore is the jumpy hare. The hare eventually brings the lion to where it heard the sound, and they find a ripe fruit lying on the ground. Danger averted, truth unveiled, mystery solved.

Beyond simple hearsay, today, if you have a smart device, then you are part of today’s connected world, where we are constantly bombarded by information from our device feeds, friends and family.

We have some time to discern what is fact or fiction, or even fairytale, before being pressured to “react”, share, click, distribute immediately, an ill that comes from the speed of this most advanced form of “communication”.

A falsehood can easily start trending and create conflict and confusion, until some discerning soul distinguishes the truth. Of course, many things are not simply black or white, and gray areas can often be contentious and divisive.

There is obvious danger in following unknowingly, but the real danger is in not knowing whether the leader is also as clueless or perhaps even differently motivated. This picture book serves as a timely reminder of this truth – to see things as they are with our own eyes.

The editor’s note on the Shogakukan website seems to suggest more Jataka Tales coming our way. I personally enjoy the canon and can’t wait to see what they have in store.

Title: 『ジャータカ物語 あわてんぼうウサギ
(Jaataka monogatari  awatenbou usagi, lit. Jataka Tales  The Jumpy Hare)
Retold by Motoko Nakagawa, illustrated by Bolormaa Baasansuren
Publisher: Tokyo, Shogakukan, 2017

(Edited for brevity and added content on illustrations)

Working magic with greens


Book review, from Toronto to Tokyo – The Fan Brothers’ first picture book collaboration, The Night Gardener, vividly captures a transformation — from bland, dreary outlook to bristling, colourful reality.

On the cover of the multi-award winning book stands an intricately sculpted owl in the light of the moon. A young boy looks up, mesmerized by the creation. This boy is William, and he lives with other children in Grimloch Lane, a street in lined with very ordinary trees and buildings. As dreary as the location sounds, the book starts off with William’s gaze fixated on something outside. The next moment, he is there, outside, staring from a distance in awe at the wise owl that was once just another boring tree. It had appeared out of nowhere in the night.

Every beautifully crafted tree draws William out, along with others in the town. Green makes room for colour, and inertia for momentum. William soon stands among the people living there, who had also come to see the masterpieces. He later finds the gardener who worked his magic in the night, but the stranger leaves, leaving no physical trace of his visit as his creations fall away through the seasons. But by the end, the town comes alive, with an ice cream truck that asks people to “watch for children” as they play outside. William had changed too, snipping away at a bush in the moonlight under a squirrel’s watchful eye.

The pictures in the book contains clues to William’s story. A photo beside him as he looked out the window suggests that he had known his parents. The elusive gardener’s 2-page dragon masterpiece was not the terrifying, fire-breathing kind, but a slender, graceful one that seemed as ready to soar the skies as it were to glide through the oceans. As the skies darkened, oriental laterns would join the dragon in adorning a local festival. The ideas in these pictures piece together a story beyond change, of using art to reach out to bring people together, and most importantly, of watching over every child and helping them find their dreams.

Title: The Night Gardener
by The Fan Brothers (Eric Fan and Terry Fan)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016
Available in hardcover and Enhanced eBook

Misuzu Kaneko’s poems resonate across times and cultures


Book review, from Tokyo – I can’t remember when I first read a children’s collection of Misuzu Kaneko’s poems. Roundish, cartoony figures, cats, dogs, flowers, and clouds left a lasting impression of cute, simple poetry about the nature of things. Take “Tsuchi to kusa” (literally dirt and grass) for example, a poem that reminded me of the drab, unseen mother of its many more appreciated embellishments – grass, bushes, trees, flowers, anything that sprung from it.

Then came news of Chin Music Press’s Are you an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko. Eager to see more of her work, I ventured to Amazon.com to get copies over to Japan quickly. Illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri, the book weaves a selection of the poet’s literary expressions into her life story. Hajiri’s vivid depictions of scenes of Japan in the 1900s are based on actual research, coupled with an on-site visit to Senzaki, where Kaneko lived, now part of Nagato city in Yamaguchi prefecture. Hajiri combines these scenes with Japan’s famed “five seasons”, which includes the rainy season ahead of summer, to immerse readers in Japanese sentiments of seasonal change.

The book covers her life, from her upbringing in a family bookstore to her breakthrough as a promising poet, and her marriage to a philandering husband. Kaneko would go on to end her life. Weakened by gonorrhea and having lost custody of her young daughter after her divorce, the pages covering her decision and determination for the child to be raised by her grand mother are accompanied by a poem “Cocoon and Grave” and a shining, fluttering butterfly breaking through the shadows.

Her poems then became lost alongside other literary works in the imperial propaganda and the outbreak of war. Her works were later found, another story in itself that is covered briefly at the start of the book. Those who were in Japan shortly after the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami might recall the TV commercials by AC Japan that followed. One of them used Kaneko’s poem, “Kodoma deshou ka”, translated into English as “Are you an Echo?” in the title of the book. Some thought this reminded people of others and the fact that everyone is in it together. To me, it remains one of my favourite, alongside “Tsuchi to kusa” (not in the book) mentioned earlier, and “Bird, Bell, and I”. By the time I had finished the book, I had a new perspective on her work.

The book wraps up its journey with a selection of 15 out of her 512 poems, each one unearthed from the sands of the time to ring across the ages. They have most certainly travelled across the seas, thanks to this publication, hopefully to be spoken about and read by many more.

Title: Are you an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
Illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri (see more of his work here)
Narrative by David Jacobson
Translations and editorial contributions by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi
Publisher: Seattle, Chin Music Press, 2016

(Ed. Added link to illustrator’s website, corrected poem title)

Parenting or not in Web 2.0


Book review, from Singapore to Tokyo – Pinch, drag, flick, tap. Slick moves mastered to deal with life to the tune of each new generation of smart devices. Buzz, flicker, ring, flash. An endless deluge of noise, light, vibes, and activity that demands our attention at every other moment, as if we did not have enough to deal with already.
Sometimes our devices bring new and refreshing updates, but more often just rejigged posts. At other times we’re creating something for everyone else in this age of user-generated content. And if you’ve got a kid craving for attention, then you’ll have trouble focusing on either. But we are in control, aren’t we? Or are we slaves of our own making?
Smart devices are so much a part of our lives today that misplacing one brings isolation from the connected world, the IoT. Well, in real life, we only have 24 hours a day to focus our limited energy on only so much. And if the touchscreen is taking our eyes off other things that should really matter, like your own kid, then obviously there lies a problem.

『ママのスマホになりたい』, “Mama no sumaho ni naritai” (literally, “I want to become mummy’s smartphone”) illustrates just this, drawing on a real essay by a Singaporean primary school boy, in which he professed that his wish was to become a smartphone (article at allsingaporestuff.com).

With Nobumi’s trademark cartoony characters, the simple, childishly spiteful exchanges between 3-year-old son and mother portrays the struggle for a parent-child relationship in an era of push feeds and other intermittent attention grabbers. The boy loses numerous creatively laid skirmishes, including a cardboard kingdom where smartphones are not allowed, before finally reconnecting with his mother.
A self-confessed guilty party, it is less my smartphone, but the daily struggle with the clock that leaves me wanting more play-and-bond time. Living with devices involves rules, balance, and understanding, something this book could maybe help parents and their children reach together. Then again with future generations set to bypass PCs and dive straight into mobile and wearable devices, and interacting through them, who knows whether this book be read the same way by the end of the next decade.
Kids grow up quickly, faster than the next app upgrade. We can uninstall updates on a whim but we can’t just reboot our lives, so I’ll be sure to catch myself on my smartphone at home, and my kids before they are ready to leave the roost!
Title: 『ママのスマホになりたい』 (Mama no sumaho ni naritai) by Nobumi
Publisher: Tokyo, WAVE Publishers, 2016