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

Five years ago, ten years on


Book review, from Tokyo – Ten years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake on 11 March 2011. In the Japanese central government’s last official ceremony in memory of the disaster’s victims, the Emperor clearly expressed a sentiment that echoed – the disaster continues today. While international news outlets continue to cover the anniversary, there is also a growing amount of literature – naturally, when survivors, people who have lived through the event become ready to talk, then will there be light shone on its many facets.

One such publication is 『16歳の語り部』(Juurokusai no kataribe; lit. 16 year-old speakers group). Released five years ago, the words of three students from Omagari Elementary School in Higashi-matsushima City, Miyagi prefecture, trace their thoughts of how they came to terms with reality and what they hoped to achieve through sharing their stories under the Kids Now Japan project (Kids Now). Former Miyagi prefecture middle school teacher Toshiro Sato started the project after reading a newspaper article on Nayuta Ganbe, one of the three children, speaking about his experience.

Structured as three separate accounts, Nayuta Ganbe, Honoka Tsuda, and Akane Aizawa share their journey of overcoming loss, facing reality among friends and adults, and finding a way forward through speaking up. P5 in 2011, they may have gone to the same school just 2.3km from the sea but their stories of that day and the five years that followed differ not only because of what they saw, but also because of their very different characters.

When the earthquake struck, Tsuda was excited at the intensity of the initial quake as she took cover under a grand piano while a strange calmness came over Aizawa as she soothed panicked friends a few rooms away. When the tsunami came, Ganbe froze as the outstretched hand of a middle-aged man drifted into the murky waves that battered the school building he was taking refuge in from two sides, and in the aftermath, bodies that once breathed life strewn across the land. Whatever was left of Tsuda’s early excitement vanished when her father showed her what was left of their home – nothing. Its second floor laid some 50 metres away by a river. As for Aizawa, despite her disbelief at her hiraya one-floor home gone, she had clung onto the hope that her beloved dog had somehow survived because it was never found. But soon, she had to come to terms with the death of a dear childhood friend.

The three of them all knew that one unnamed person, but it was especially excruciating for Aizawa because the two had quarreled over something she could not recall the previous day and could no longer apologize. For Tsuda, this same person, who knew Aizawa took time to befriend someone, had once said “ano ko no koto, yoroshiku ne” to her about Aizawa, and that now took on a different meaning.

Recovery took time; the three of them eventually each found their own way. When school resumed about a month later, students were instructed not to talk about the tsunami. In middle school, inlanders, who did not suffer much damage, outnumbered those who came from the coast, and so the differences in how they behaved, what they spoke about became more pronounced, increasingly marginalized. Ganbe gradually came to understand the gag order, but he was shocked when he heard someone else, about the same age, speaking out at an event – it’s okay to talk about it! – and he soon found meaning in speaking and sharing his story with others. Especially when memories were gradually changing as time passed. Talking made him feel better but he also saw how he could help others learn about the disaster in this way. He saw how natural disasters could strike Japan at anytime, anywhere – that others were mi-saisha (people who may one day be afflicted by a natural disaster). And he saw how his work could help save lives in the next big one.

On the other hand, Tsuda’s frustration exploded in class one day when she flung a table at a boy who was making fun of how his mother panicked during the quake. Reacting in that way allowed Tsuda, and some of the boys in her class, to keep their heads, she reflected. She also saw how some adults, being humans themselves, pushed children aside in the queue for rations. Tsuda had a father, and teacher, who trusted her to find herself, her own way in life as a person, which was liberating. Inspired by Ganbe’s actions, she also too took to sharing her experience with her peers. Near the end of her account, she reflected how not everything since 3.11 had been bad, and also on the importance of human interaction, because despite all our records of the past, when those cease to exist, what remains would be the depth of one’s memories.

Aizawa, however, was one to bottle things inside. Like others traversing childhood and adulthood, she didn’t find it easy to open up to an adult, and so she didn’t. Instead, she found respite in venting to Tsuda her complaints and troubles during their walks home from school, but the emotions and tension kept churning within. She confessed to having lost her old positive self as she fell deeper and deeper into negativity with each harsh uttering of her stressed friends. But she was not suicidal. Just lost. Not necessarily searching for any particular direction in life. But when she was given the chance to speak, she found that the freedom to speak without restraint to her peers allowed her to slowly find her cheerful self again. In retrospect, she wished that adults had simply watched over them quietly instead of probing from time to time. And, she still loves the sea.

The book encapsulates in time, fixing in print the words of these three 16 year-old survivors who were 11 at that time. It also includes an entry by Miyu Yamashiro, a Tokyo high schooler who heard them speak, along with Sato’s entry that rounds up the book. Sato himself lost his daughter who was raring to go on to middle school. But Ganbe’s, Tsuda’s, and Aizawa’s words gave him another perspective, that of children that day. Their voices drive the hope and strength enclosed in these pages that make this title one not just for their stories but also a reminder of other children who have suffered more. As we remember the lives lost and the missing, we must remind ourselves to be ready for the next disaster and the recovery in its aftermath.

Title: 『16歳の語り部』(Juurokusai no kataribe; lit. 16 year-old speakers group) by Nayuta Ganbe, Honoka Tsuda, and Akane Aizawa, supervised by Toshiro Sato
Publisher: POPLAR Publishing, 2016

Nayuta Ganbe appears in this recent article.
Japan’s children of the tsunami shaped by tragedy, Jakarta Post, 4 March 2021

(Updated on 14 March to include Tsuda’s opinions on non-negative things post-3.11 and revise ending)

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.

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

Such a simple story


Book review from Tokyo – If ever we needed a simple children’s story about colours, Arree Chung’s Mixed (Henry Holt, 2018; Macmillan Children’s Books, 2018) probably fits the bill.

This brilliantly simple picture book for 3-5 year-olds begins with three colours – red, yellow, and blue. Reds were loud, yellows were bright, and blues were cool. Then one day reds started proclaiming they were the best because they were loudest. The yellows reacted, saying they were the brightest and best. And the blues just couldn’t care less about the brooha. The city quickly became segregated by colour.

But when a yellow took a liking to a blue, they mixed and created green. More colours mixed, creating an entire spectrum of colours in a multi-coloured city. And soon a new harmonious co-existence formed. Not perfect, but still home.

That last sentence signs off the book. The initial “harmony” began falling apart with a single loudmouth. So simple, but so very divisive. But when some colours became naturally attracted to their mutual differences, they came together and eventually built a new co-existence to call home.

What if the colours didn’t, or couldn’t, mix? Imagine a world of just different shades of red? How stuntedly bland is that?

Mixing creates in-betweeners that fill the gaps in the spectrum, making it more complete, more seamlessly enjoined. The spectrum has a place for every colour, even for the new ones yet to be formed.

Let’s take it one step further. Mix. Go out there. Reach out to other people. Hear them. And we will see the beauty, or not, of what we are part of.

It’s such a simple story, isn’t it?

 

Title: Mixed by Arree Chung
Publisher: Henry Holt, 2018; Macmillan Children’s Books, 2018

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

There’s more to being clever


Book review, from Tokyo – Mid March. The World Health Organization raised the coronavirus outbreak to a global pandemic. School in Japan has been abruptly suspended since mid February following a school-related cluster in Hokkaido. March 11 events, exhibitions, concerts, the Olympics. Postponed.

This widening enforced lockdown coincides with the coming of spring. A time for renewal and new beginnings. Bordering the old and new academic and business years in Japan, this period is also marked by its famed sakura viewing season. Young people in formal graduation dress. Graduates and adults moving to new workplaces and offices. In a meritocracy, education ties in closely with climbing the rungs of the social ladder. I took this opportunity to take an idle adolescent mind off her younger sibling and the passing bug to gift my child a paper guide to lifelong learning.

Takashi Saito’s 『本当の「頭のよさ」ってなんだろう』(Hontou no “atama no yosa” tte nandarou, lit., The real meaning of being “clever”; Seibundo Shinkosha Publishing Co., Ltd., 2019) starts by questioning why some people succeed in life despite not getting good grades in school. He reveals that grades measure performance on a tested scope, not necessarily the ability to adapt, innovate or be creative. Besides education, school, he suggests, offers the chance to learn how to live as a social being, a safe, controlled environment where children can learn about themselves and build their own identity. Advocating the benefits of institutionalized education, he opines that specializing in a certain field too early only limits one’s potential, and sowing the seeds of learning in a broad education helps to grow them into a rich forest of knowledge. And from that forest will one find personal purpose.

Saito’s guide to lifelong learning persuades readers to set aside the obsession with making the grade. Because we only have so much time, an overemphasis on beating the test will surely come at the expense of the pursuit of more holistic, wholesome goals. Bring that into the corporate world and we will see shadows of a scandal in the making.

Humanity is facing a test. A test where we cannot merely seek to make the grade by seeking those low numbers. Since the outbreak began, surges in confirmed cases have occupied our minds, the airwaves, and targeted news feeds. To pass this test well, we need knowledge and coordination from our best informed minds and trusted leaders and cooperation from a calm, informed public. And then in Japan, nature summoned a morning of snowfall after a day that topped 23 degrees Celsius last weekend. Surely no one will forget the larger problem requiring global leadership and coordination – humanity and the climate. Should this book serve its purpose, then we will find many more children building more forests of knowledge for humanity. 

Title: 『本当の「頭のよさ」ってなんだろう』(Hontou no “atama no yosa” tte nandarou; lit., The real meaning of being “clever”) by Takashi Saito
Publisher: Seibundo Shinkosha Publishing Co., Ltd., 2019