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

Systems of our own making


Book review, from Tokyo – Our modern society is a web of systems. Communications networks, law and enforcement, finance and payments, sewage, gas, electricity. Modern human society runs on these. Alliances, ideologies, capitalism, and the different political systems are also of our own making. But not everyone goes by the same rules. If someone made them, then someone else can change them. But when only one person makes all the decisions, it is called a dictatorship.

Translated by Lawrence Schimel into English based on Equipo Plantel’s Spanish title first published in 1977, This is a Dictatorship (Book Island, 2021) reminds us that there are those who rule with an iron fist today, inciting fear and terror. Mikel Casal’s blocky bold illustrations for the 2015 version portray a beady-eyed, moustached, bald dictator who calls all the shots in his country. (For more on the illustrations, read this interview on Picturebook Makers.) The few people close to him grow wealthier for their pretenses while the masses stay poor, discontented and silent for fear of persecution. We are told that dictatorships end with the death of the tyrant or when he is kicked out by the masses. This we know does not happen if there is succession nor will it be a peaceful transition in the latter situation.

Using a limited colour palette, Casal’s pictures seem to transport the reader back a few decades to the time when dictatorships were easily recognizable. But the end notes warn us that many methods may be used to subvert democratic functions even in apparently democratic societies. Gerrymandering, politicizing public organizations, public accounts lacking transparency, subverting human rights and speech are just some examples that come to mind.

For the apparent, we only have to look to instances of civilian oppression for examples. Sometimes, however even without overtly terrorizing, the constant flex of military muscle can threaten and unravel the mental fabric of a free autonomous territory or even a neighbouring sovereign nation. Of course, other methods could involve wielding the legal machinery to take down and silence opposing voices, often with reputational and financially crippling consequences.

When the world grapples with a breach of sovereignty, we are reminded that peace and democracy were never givens. Of course, the same goes for a dictatorship. Systems of our own making require much work to uphold and maintain. Without that they can become very shaky, very quickly. That one feels sufficiently threatened or within their capacity to change the rules, though, seems to indicate that the rest have not talked to or heard them enough. Conflict will always involve at least two sides, and ideologies are often in opposition to one another.

But shouldn’t it be obvious to everyone, including politicians and capitalists, that our collective sustenance depends on how well we share and use our world’s resources together, not money nor how imaginary lines or cultural groupings delineate and divide us? Or have we all been sold on the myth of eternal economic growth on limited resources? Why haven’t we taken a break from the cycle of production-consumption to think about new systems for humanity? Perhaps one answer lies in the direction of the political systems we have devised and under which we are governed.

Title: This is a Dictatorship by Equipo Plantel, illustrated by Mikel Casal, translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel
Publisher: Book Island, 2021

Resilience from helpful neighbours


Book review, from Tokyo – After spying a review in a column by Ayako Oguni in the Mainichi Shimbun (morning edition, 2 March 2021), I simply had to pick up this particular picture book. Kyoko Ube’s 『リアスのうみべ さんてつがゆく』 (Riasu no umibe santetsu ga yuku; lit., the Ria coast where the Santetsu runs) tells the inspiring heart-felt story of the Sanriku Railway after the March 2011 tsunami.

Affectionately known as Santetsu, of which san comes from the name of the region and tetsu an abbreviation of tetsudo or railway, the service running along the 160km Rias Line famously ploughed on despite extensive damage to its tracks and bridges. It is no wonder that the train line has become a symbol of reconstruction. But this book offers more than just that story.

From the title page, Yukiko Saito’s illustrations threw me straight into a dark and dank room lit only by a sole candle. An old lady huddles together with two children in a blanket while a man next to them sits hunched against the wall. His head hangs dejectedly, a black rucksack stands nearby. Their backs are to the window, so I can see rooftops washing away outside. Some power poles too. This is a now familiar image I could piece together from first-hand accounts.

The next few pages surprised me, like the people who hear the train coming through the light snow. It can’t be! There is so much damage, but people work day and night to put the railway back into service. And by the fifth day, the train pulls into the station, bringing people equipped, determined, and ready to help clean up the rubble. Many survivors become ill from their prolonged stays in the evacuation shelters, but a ride together on the familiar santetsu brings tears of joy and smiles. When an old lady apologizes for not being able to paying her fare, the train conductor grips her hands appreciatively, saying “We’re in it together. Ganbaru beshi!”

As the train chugs on, over the years, the landscape outside changes from construction site brown to a grassy green covering what was once a town. Strolling the plain, those legs would recall a fish shop here, the tofu store next to it, and the barber across the street. As the sea breeze passing through the pine forest brings back kinder, fun memories, a distant train whistle reminds us that we are not alone.

Written in simple Tohoku dialect, the book portrays the resilience of the region driven and made possible by the railway. Besides the dialect, illustrator Saito also hails from Tohoku, which makes it a full cast from subject matter to perspective. My particular takeaway is how resilience comes from standing in solidarity and reaching out to help your neighbours. No one is or should be left alone. As a Chinese saying goes, a faraway relative cannot stop a nearby fire. The nearby community must be the first port of call. So, this book is truly a tribute to the santetsu. A railway that connects and stays close to its people. Its rhythmic rumbling, the heartbeat of the Sanriku coast.

Title: 『リアスのうみべ さんてつがゆく』 (Riasu no umibe santetsu ga yuku; lit., the Ria coast where the Santetsu runs) text by Kyoko Ube, illustrated by Yukiko Saito
Publisher: Iwasaki Shoten, 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)

To the land of the Simorgh


Book review, from Tokyo – It was Christmas eve in lockdown. The sudden ringing of the intercom startled me. I wasn’t expecting a delivery. Oh yes, a return for Tiny Owl book’s crowdfunding campaign, I eventually recalled. How beautiful it was, and timely to enjoy a story that invokes thoughts of renewal and reunion.

Taking a page out of the Iranian storytelling tradition, Sally Pomme Clayton’s The Phoenix of Persia took me to a park in Tehran where musicians and the storyteller readied their instruments before starting their performance – a story from the Shahnameh, the Persian literary epic, where a legendary firebird, the Simorgh, brings up an abandoned baby prince.

The ruler of Ancient Persia King Sam had been plunged into sorrow by the sight of his newborn son’s head of hair as white as snow. Despite Queen Aram’s pleas, he ordered baby Zal to be cast away, alone, into the wilderness where leopards prowled, wolves lurked, and other beasts roamed. Passing by above, the Simorgh heard Zal’s cries and brought the white-haired baby back to her nest and her other chicks atop The Tree of All Seeds on The Mountain of Gems. Versed in the history of the Universe and speaking the world’s tongues, the Simorgh taught Zal well, and he grew wise. Meanwhile, King Sam grew old. Realizing his grave mistake, he set out to find his son. Near where the baby was left many years ago, he encountered a young man with white hair, just like his. This was Zal. Having been brought up in the wild, the forests and mountains were the only home he knew. Seeing Zal’s reluctance to return to the palace, the Simorgh offered another piece of wisdom – “Being human is being able to forgive” – before leaving Zal with feathers to light and call for her aid. Zal returned to the kingdom, ruling wisely with a feathered crown.

By the end of the story, I am brought back to the park, yearning to hear the next tale from the Shahnameh.

Amin Hassanzadeh Sharif’s illustrations imbue the brilliantly colourful Simorgh with wisdom, kindness, strength, and grace. The special edition comes with an audio book that couples Clayton’s narration with music played on instruments described in the backmatter. Used to express specific characters in the story, including The Mountain of Gems, their sounds seem to blend and weave a story of forgiving and reconciliation of their own.

Title: The Phoenix of Persia by Sally Pomme Clayton, illustrated by Amin Hassanzadeh Sharif
Publisher: Tiny Owl, 2019 (hardcover), comes with audiobook version.

An unexpected read


Book review, from Tokyo – I never thought I would find it sitting in that bookstore. “Are there any English books?” I ventured politely at the cashier counter. The kind lady guided me to the English study corner of the store. Well, there was half a shelf, and this was one of the largest stores in greater Tokyo albeit targeted at a domestic crowd. Anyway, I already expected the selection because I had searched their online catalogue. But what I didn’t expect was for the eiken (practical English language proficiency test) section to come with a tiny little shelf of learning aids, where there stood inconspicuously not one but two copies of And Tango Makes Three alongside Hello Kitty early reader book and educational toys. I had heard about this book, once-banned in Singapore, and had read it before. This Classic Board Book edition just screamed out – get me! – so I did, thinking “Anyway, there’s another copy for someone else!”

My elder daughter, now in middle school, has gotten more interested in English, although whether for grades or just the language remains unclear. She might pick Tango off the shelf someday, but my younger one’s preference for foreign language learning veers towards K-pop. That is, if she ever ventures there as often as she does the tablet, her toys, or her sewing kit. She often asked to be read at bedtime. So when I got the chance, I dangled a penguin story along with a running translation in Japanese. And she bit.

For anyone who hasn’t already read, Tango is based on a true story about two male penguins fathering a chick in New York City’s Central Park Zoo. Tango starts by bringing readers to New York City, then Central Park, and then its zoo, where human families come to meet the animal kind. And of course, there must be penguins because they’re on the cover! So the story starts when two male penguins Roy and Silo find each other during mating season. They waddle, swim, eat, and sing together. They do everything together. But when other couples start hatching eggs in their nests, Roy and Silo could only bring home an egg-like rock to warm. That is, until one day, when Mr. Gramzay, their keeper, snuck a spare egg into their nest. The two penguins cared for it and it was only time when Tango cracked it open. The book ends with children cheering on a fledgling Tango gliding through the waters with her two fathers before sunset in the penguin house suggest that its time for human and animals alike to go to bed.

Reading that to her didn’t lull her to sleep but drew loads of unexpected laughter. She giggled at how the two penguins seemed to do everything together, particularly bowing as she would. She laughed at how they imitated the other couples by bringing home a rock, and how they tried to hatch it – Of course, it wouldn’t hatch! It’s a rock! Obviously, she was having loads of fun. And right at the end, she burst out again, “two fathers” she exclaimed, to which I added two mothers is also fine. And I think I caught a paused smile in the dim light before she repeated herself again, her mind probably more energized than sleepy after all that. I suggested another read, which she took off me to race through before finally drifting off to dreamland.

Something felt warm and fuzzy inside as I saw my seven-year-old’s openness and honest reactions to this penguin story, regardless of how the birds actually turned out. Reading together certainly opened my eyes to something more than just penguins not normally being able to care for more than one egg. Maybe one day, she will pick it up and perceive it differently on own her own, in the same way as her elder sister, now attuned to the SDGs, did when she reread that Japanese picture book on Mujica’s speech.

(Review based on Little Simon Classic Board Books edition.)

Title: And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 2005 (hardcover); Little Simon, 2015 (board book)
Also available as ebook and audiobook.