"A library book, I imagine, is a happy book." Cornelia Funke

"Everything puts me in mind of a story." Ben Franklin

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Mightiest One

Both of today's stories are about the most powerful thing on earth. While we readers might assume it will be something huge and impressive, these tales show us otherwise. The seemingly humble can be mighty too.

The Stonecutter: a Japanese Folktale Adapted and Illus. by Gerald McDermott
McDermott's book, The Stonecutter, came out in 1975 and is still a classic, readily available in libraries. It is about Tasuku, a stonecutter, who chips stone blocks from the mountain for others to use in building palaces and temples. His honest work pleases the mountain spirit, who overhears Tasuku's wish to be a prince and grants it. From there the modest worker wants to be in more and more powerful positions, leading to a sobering outcome .
Full of strong graphic art,  The Stonecutter packs a bright visual punch. McDermott used hand colored paper to make the collages. They rely on bold shapes and overall impact rather than fussy details. His clean designs convey the drama of the story and impress his readers.
The Greatest of All: a Japanese Folktale retold by Eric A. Kimmel, Illus. by Giora Carmi
The Greatest of All teaches the same lesson as The Stonecutter, but is lighter in tone. Kimmel tells the reader that his source is a story called "The Wedding Mouse," and therefore Kimmel's version is about a pompous mouse searching for "the greatest of all" to be his daughter's husband. She is in love with a field mouse, but Father Mouse stomps off to betroth her to the human emperor. The mouse is surprised to hear the emperor admit that there is one that is greater than himself, but the social climbing mouse feels entitled to seek out that mightiest one. As he interviews each groom-elect, he is finally led to the perfect husband for his child, and the emperor even writes a haiku for the wedding!
Each panel of Giora Carmi's art is contained by a speckled terracotta border, adding visual unity through the book.  His illustration of the absurdly grand Father Mouse reminds me of Yul Brynner in The King and I, with the addition of an armload of cheese. The personified sun, cloud, wind and wall are appealing, especially at the wedding at the wedding, where the wind blows flowers into the path of the merry couple, and the cloud cries tears of joy.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Tales of Lucky, Happy Cats

You are probably familiar with the charming Asian Lucky Cats, waving at you at from festival booths, storefronts and restaurants. I love to see these cheerful little statues and have a tiny pink cat and kitten set on my desk at work. Today's three stories give us varied explanations of the origin of these small bringers of happiness and good fortune.

I Am Tama, Lucky Cat: a Japanese Legend by Wendy Henrichs, Illus. by Yoshiko Jaeggi

Wendy Henrichs' author's note in I Am Tama, Lucky Cat, explains that the Maneki Neko or Beckoning Cat legend probably began more than 350 years ago during Japan's early Edo period. Her  version of the story refers to the Goutoku-ji Temple near Tokyo where hundreds of cats are buried, and a gravestone and shrine honor Tama, the original beckoning cat. The figurines traditionally are white, black and orange, after Tama, but now come in many color combinations.

Henrich's Lucky Cat, Tama, is a Japanese bobtail kitty who tells us its own story. At first a stray, the cat is taken in by a poor monk. They stay together in an aging temple, and although the monk has little, his first thoughts are to provide more comfort for the temple's worshippers and his little cat. One day, during a thunderstorm, a samurai warlord seeks shelter under a cherry tree, and he is surprised to be beckoned away by the monk's feline companion. By doing so, Tama saves the samurai from disaster and improves the lives of the monk, the worshippers, the warlord, his family and herself!

Yoshiko Jaeggi's watercolor illustrations are done in the most realistic style of the three titles. Her primarily neutral palette is punctuated by brighter splashes of color, such as Tama's red collar, the pink blossoms of the cherry tree and the kimonos of the temple visitors. Readers will enjoy peaceful scenes such as snow falling on the temple and the mountains, the monk and Tama watching carp swim in a pond confettied with plum petals and the inside of the Buddhist temple with a slightly leaky roof. I especially like the sweetly blushing Tama raising her paw to greet temple worshippers. These serene subjects provide contrast to the drama of the storm, in which Jaeggi has painted the menacing Raijin, god of thunder and the lightning demon, Raiju doing their worst.

The Beckoning Cat : Based on a Japanese Folktale by Koko Nishizuka, Illus. by Rosanne Litzinger
 The Beckoning Cat tells the story of a boy named Yohei who works hard to take care of his ailing father. To do so he must sell fish door-to-door, and use the money to buy medicine. He is limited in his business, because he can only carry two barrels of fish at a time.
One night a white cat shows up at Yohei's door, shivering in the rain. He lets her in, warms her up, and gives her food from his own plate. When his father becomes too ill to be left at home alone, Yohei has fish that may spoil and no means of selling them... until his white cat, with a wave of her paw, begins inviting customers to their home .Yohei's family prospers. Naturally, people begin to make porcelain cats like Yohei's for good luck, putting them in their shop windows to welcome their own customers.
Litzinger's accompanying art is done in watercolor, colored pencil, ink and gouache, and is softly washed with color. Much in this folktale world is pleasingly rounded, from the kitty's ears and paws, to the catches of the day, to the blue flowers that bob into some of the pictures. Readers will enjoy the final picture of the Lucky Cat, seemingly waving goodbye.
The Tale of the Lucky Cat Retold & Illus by Sunny Seki
The saddest of the retellings is The Tale of the Lucky Cat . In this version, the struggling toymaker Tokuzo sees a cat get trampled by a speeding horse. He takes the kitty home to nurse it and names it Tama.  Unfortunately, sweet Tama dies while Tokuzo is out peddling his toys. But when Tokuzo finds himself in danger, Tama reappears and saves his life. To honor Tama and share his good luck with other people, Tokuzo decides to create a statue of his cat. He teams up with the sickly Old Master Craftsman and his talented daughter and soon everyone's lives are bettered. The statues became popular all over Japan, and, Seki explains, eventually people believed that the raised right paw on the Maneki Neko statue brings fortune, and the raised left paw brings happiness and good luck.
The copy that I read is in both English and Chinese, and includes a small glossary of the Japanese words used in the story. The book is also available in bilingual editions with English paired with either Arabic, Japanese, Hmong, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog or Vietnamese.
Seki's book has stylized and expressive illustrations and he has worked in some comedy, such as when Tokuzo begins to make cat statues, but his failed efforts look more like pigs, rabbits and teddy bears instead. He uses color to enhance the moods of the story. When Tokuzo takes Tama home and splints her (his?) leg, the two smile together, and green and orange mixture of morning light pours over them, but when the cat dies, the scene is done in black, blue and a bruised looking green. Even the candle flame is grey, and the room is shadowy.
I liked all three versions of the Lucky Cat figures origins.Seek them out at your local library!


Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks

The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks by Katherine Paterson, Illus. by Leo & Diane Dillon
Katherine Paterson, the award winning children's book author, has given us this beautiful retelling of a Japanese folktale. You are probably familiar with  Paterson due to her classics  Bridge To Terabithia,  Jacob Have I Loved, The Great Gilly Hopkins and her many other chapter books. She authored several picture books and folktales. Did you also know that she studied and worked in Japan?
 Like our story in the last post, The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks, has a cruel and in this case, greedy, lord oppressing those that he rules. One day, when out hunting, he sees a beautifully feathered Mandarin drake, and thoughtlessly has it captured so he can show it off in his manor. When the drake begins to pine for its woodland mate and loses its luster, the lord discards it, but still keeps it encaged. Shozo, the one-eyed chief steward, whose own appearance displeases his lord, fruitlessly speaks up for the drake's freedom, and the kindly kitchen maid Yasuko silently releases it. The furious lord punishes Shozo, but the former steward and samurai now is able to spend time with Yasuko and the two fall in love. This further enrages the lord, who passes a death sentence on the lovers, but a magical series of events frees them from his power and ends their suffering. Showing compassion to the lonely drake and his partner has led them to their happily ever after.
The lovely artwork of The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks was created by the extraordinary and versatile artists Leo and Diane Dillon. This husband and wife team are among my favorite illustrators. Unfortunately, Leo Dillon passed away in May 2012, but they created beautiful artwork that you can view at The Art of Leo and Diane Dillon , and elsewhere. According to the dust jacket, the art for this book was done as watercolor and pastel paintings in the style of 18th century Japanese woodcuts. This is called ukiyo-e, which translates as "pictures of the floating world." More information and pictures of  ukiyo-e work is available at the Library of Congress,
Katherine Paterson (photo by Samantha Loomis Paterson)
                                                            The Dillons

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Wise Old Woman by Yoshiko Uchida, Illus. by Martin Springett

I'm back with a renewed desire to look at illustrated fairy and folktales from different cultures. This time I have chosen Japan. In the past, I have checked out tales from Russia and Africa.

Today's tale, The Wise Old Woman, satisfies me personally because it values both women and old age. In a town where anyone over 70 years old is deemed useless and condemned to die, live a young farmer and his clever and considerate old mother. Unable to leave his mother to perish, the farmer privately defies their cruel lord and hides her in a secret room under his home.

A couple of years later, when another mighty lord threatens to conquer the village, who is able to meet his challenge and save the people? Naturally, it is the wise woman. Three impossible tasks are set that baffle the wittiest ones in town, as well as an intelligent badger. When the village lord realizes that the old mother has solved the riddles and prevented the overtaking of his land, he gives her three bags of gold and decides that all the elderly must be treated with respect and shown honor.

Yoshiko Uchida was a Japanese American author who wrote more than 30 books, many of them about Japanese folklore. Martin Springett is a British-born illustrator of adult Fantasy, as well as children's books. His paintings for The Wise Old Woman are done with airbrush and ink. His pictures take the reader to a time "long ago," and he dresses and arms his characters in what I would assume is a traditional style. The pretty old mother stands up tall and serene as she meets her challenges and improved fortune.