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.