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

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

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Wabi Sabi By Mark Reibstein

Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein, Art by Ed Young, 2008.

Wabi Sabi is a Japanese folktale title suggested in the January 2013 issue of Book Links magazine. I am happy that I found Wabi Sabi, because when I look for picture books, I'm often thinking of something for storytime and funny, colorful titles often catch my attention first. I had previously missed this serene, lovely book with the beautifully melded elements. It will be great for quiet one-on-one reading time that will help both adult and child experience the world in a different way.

In this story, a little Japanese cat called Wabi Sabi wonders what her name means. As she asks her master and her animal friends, including a wise old monkey, a picture slowly emerges for her and by the book's end she understands.

 I have not been familiar with the concept of wabi sabi, so allow me to quote from the book:

"Wabi Sabi is a way of seeing the world that is at the heart of Japanese culture. It finds beauty and harmony in what is simple, imperfect, natural, modest, and mysterious. It can be a little dark, but it is also warm and comfortable. It may be best understood as a feeling, rather than as an idea."

As the kitty learns the about the meaning of her name, so does the reader. This is expressed through the book's artwork, the story itself, and the English and Japanese haiku that appears. The book is intended to be turned vertically and read two pages at a time, each double spread showing another step in Wabi Sabi's journey to know about her name.

Haiku poetry in Japanese characters is featured throughout, written by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) and Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). It runs as a vertical decoration for each spread. At the book's end, each haiku's author and translation is given, like this one by Shiki:

"for me leaving
for you staying
two autumns"

Haiku in English, written by the author Mark Reibstein is also used as part of the story's narration. For example, when Wabi Sabi speaks to her friend Snowball, the white cat tries to express the concept of wabi sabi:

"An old straw mat, rough
on cat's paws, pricks and tickles...
hurts and feels good, too."

This adds yet another dimension to the book for the reader to enjoy.

Caldecott award winner Ed Young has illustrated more than eighty books. In Wabi Sabi, his collage art is made of natural materials and aged human-made objects. The pictures convey texture that makes the reader want to touch them, like the rippled paper that makes the frog pond or the fluffy bits on the cat's ears and chest. Photographs of real pine needles, autumn leaves and backgrounds of chipping paint are a part of the collage illustrations.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Farmer and the Poor God


The Farmer and the Poor God: a Folktale From Japan Retold by Ruth Wells. Illus. by Yoshi, 1996.

This is the tale of a somewhat deluded, somewhat lazy farmer and his family who rue their luck and figure that they must have a Poor God. This is actually true, they do have a Poor God or Bimbogami, who lives in their attic and likes the family. When the farmer plans to move his people away to escape their bad luck, the Poor God intends to go too, and sets about making sandals for the journey. No one leaves, but the Poor God goes right on making beautiful sandals. Soon, the family finds this is something that they can do also, and they become happier and better off. Laughing replaces squabbling and singing does away with worry. They find they've come to love their own Poor God and wouldn't trade him for another.

Yoshi's art for The Farmer and the Poor God is painted dyes on silk. She uses lots of rich colors like emerald green, bronze and deep blue. The texture of the material is visible through the paintings, making the art extra interesting. The Poor God looks like an ordinary but raggedy old man. The scene where the fat, jolly (Buddha-like) Rich God is driven away from the hut is an amusing one, with the farmer menacing him with his shoe, his wife tossing a bucket full of water and the family cat pouncing from the door frame.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Moon Princess

The Moon Princess Retold by Ralph F. McCarthy, Illus. by Kancho Oda, 1993.

This bilingual folktale (Japanese and English) in verse tells of another baby born in a miraculous way, who also reaches adulthood within a few months (See Super Fruit Babies). This is Princess Shining Bright. When her woodcutter father finds her inside a glowing bamboo that he has cut down, she becomes the daughter to elderly parents. Every day after, her father finds another magical bamboo filled with gold. Shining Bright becomes a beautiful woman with many suitors, but she has no wish to marry and puts them off by giving them them impossible tasks to fulfill. This allows her to spend four more years with her family. However, her true origin is revealed, bringing things to a bittersweet end.

This is a mini book, not quite 7 1/2 inches tall. The book tells us that the illustrations are from volume 203 of the Kodansha Picture Book series. I'm not sure what that means. The pictures have a traditional look and if I knew more about Japanese art, I'm sure there would be much more to tell (I'm trying to remedy this with, yes, more books). As you can see from the book's cover, the art is beautifully detailed. Overall, it is quite a pretty little book.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Fiftyfifty.me Challenge

Following the example of my fine friend and coworker The Floating Lush, who completed it last year, I've decided to take the fiftyfifty.me challenge. "What is that?" you may ask and I'm glad that you did. It is simply reading 50 books and watching 50 movies in the calendar year of 2013. No rereads! I will report my stats at each month's end. This should be fun!

Any book or film suggestions for me?

The Boy From The Dragon Palace

The Boy From The Dragon Palace: a Folktale from Japan Retold by Margaret Read MacDonald, Illus. by Sachiko Yoshikawa. 2011.

This Japanese folktale is another variation of "The Fisherman and His Wife," a German story attributed to the Grimms (See a Ukrainian variation in my post about Luba and the Wren ). In all, a kind deed is rewarded with a series of wishes, but greed causes the overly ambitious to end up back where they began.

In MacDonald's story, a poor flower seller gifts the Dragon King under the sea with all of his unsold flowers. He receives a dirty, snotty nosed little boy as a thank you. He must feed the child shrimp with vinegar and sugar every day and will then have good luck.

The flower seller is thrilled to find out that after he feeds the little boy, when the kid blows his nose, magical things happen. The flower man can have gold, a palace, anything he wants. However, once he is content, he doesn't want to care for the child anymore. So, he turns the snotty little guy out...

This will make a popular read aloud for kids because of the funny, gross delivery of  wishes and the satisfaction of seeing someone get what's coming to him.

Yoshikawa's colorful watercolor collages are the perfect accompaniment to the story. Kids should really enjoy the grubby little boy, wiping his nose on one sleeve and then the other before blowing his nose in the air and slurping his shrimp. Everyone will like fun illustrations such as the flower seller falling back joyfully on his treasure with his white stocking feet kicking about, and the Dragon King (yes, a dragon dressed in a kimono) and company (beautiful lady, unmannerly little boy) overseeing his watery kingdom.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Silver Charm by Robert San Souci

The Silver Charm: A Folktale from Japan by Robert D. San Souci, Illus. by Yoriko Ito, 2002.

This folktale comes from north Japan's indigenous Ainu people who live on  Hokkaido island . A fisherman and his wife have a little son called Satsu, who they warn to stay away from the wood's edge and protect with a silver ship charm. Satsu has young animals for pets, a puppy and a fox cub. One day they are playing and of course Satsu, busily eating berries, wanders too near the woods. A huge hairy ogre appears, grabs him and forces him to give up his precious charm. Immediately after, Satsu becomes too sick to walk home. His pets must take action to save him. He must have his charm back or die. So, the puppy and the fox, with the help of a mouse and some magical transformations, outsmart the Ogre and rescue their master.

 Ito's watercolor illustrations are tender and attractive. The characters show their love for each other with simple but heartfelt poses, such as the fox and puppy curled up asleep together, the parents carrying their sick son home and the young animals playing chase with their their master while the adults look on, smiling. The art also has a dreamy quality: Satsu's charm glows with a halo like a dandelion puff, the transformed animals kneel at the ogre's hut as three ravens look down on them, the puppy-girl dances the Crane Dance in a whirl of white smoke. The scene stealer is the ogre. He is shaggy and horned, with claw like nails and dangling beaded bracelets.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Issun Boshi (One-Inch Boy)

Issun Boshi (One-Inch Boy): a Japanese Folktale retold by Nadia Higgins, Illus. by JT Morrow, 2012.

Born from his old mother's thumb, the courageous but tiny Issun Boshi desires to go to Kyoto and serve the kindly Lord Sanjo. He impresses the lord and soon becomes a valuable servant and special companion to the Princess Sanjo. One day, when a pesky Oni appears, Issun Boshi takes out his needle sword and knows just what to do. He wins a magical hammer, which in turn wins him the Princess.

The pictures are a mixture of  half grey scale illustrations and half color. One of the most interesting one shows Issun Boshi waving his needle sword, with the imposing shadow of the Oni falling over him. His small size is also emphasized as he stands in his mother's palm, rows away in a rice bowl and climbs into the Oni's gaping mouth.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Why Cats Chase Mice: A Story of the Twelve Zodiac Signs

Why Cats Chase Mice: A Story of the Twelve Zodiac Signs Retold and Illus. by Mina Harada Eimon, 1993.

This story explains how the Asian Zodiac signs originated and why cats and mice are no longer friends. Back when all the animals got along, Kami-sama, the creator-god, explained that he needed twelve special animal helpers to aid him in guarding creation. Each would watch over things for a year at a time. The animals would be chosen on January first, when all creatures would race to his palace, and the first twelve to arrive would be the winners. The animals were all excited, but the cat Neko-san fell asleep during Kami-sama's announcement and didn't hear the day of the race! Unfortunately, he checked the date with the tricky mouse Nezumi-san. We know the helpers/Zodiac signs are the mouse (rat), ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep monkey, rooster, dog, and boar. No cat. What could have gone wrong?

Eimon's art is colorful and her characters express big emotions. As the story begins, a family of tricky mice prepare to send a wind up mouse out to a disgruntled cat who is waiting at their hole. They are clearly enjoying their joke. Nezumi-san is also thrilled by his chance to best Neko-san and is shown waving a fluffy dandelion with an expression of glee. Finally, a priceless picture of the sulky cat, with flat ears, crossed paws and a dramatic frown, surrounded by the new Zodiac animals is bound to make readers smile.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Old Man Who Made the Trees Bloom

The Old Man Who Made the Trees Bloom by Hanasaka Jiji, retold by Tamizo Shibano,
 Illus. by Bunshu Iguchi, 1985. Part of Heian's Japanese Fairy Tale Series.

In this fable, a loving and kind old couple and their good dog, Shiro, live next door to a greedy and selfish old couple. When Shiro brings his human family good fortune, the evil neighbor takes advantage of our hero's generosity and borrows Shiro, hoping for similar wealth. Unfortunately, he is unsuccessful and gains no treasure, but instead does a wicked thing. Thereafter, each time the kind old man prospers through the magical love of Shiro, the horrible man imitates him, but fails. Miracles occur for the loving couple, but the greedy, deceitful man is punished and imprisoned by the emperor. An Afterword by Professor Keigo Seki explains the traditional aspects of the tale, including good triumphing over evil, and Japanese attitudes about the dead and rebirth.

The art is emotionally resonant. Anyone who's ever loved a dog can appreciate the picture of the old man with Shiro sitting before him, paws and muzzle in his lap.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Boy Who Drew Cats

I'm quite fond of this somewhat eerie story, which I always called a folk tale, but is apparently a legend about a 15th century artist named Sesshu Toyo. The basic plot of The Boy Who Drew Cats revolves around a clever young boy, too weak to work in the fields, who is taken to a temple to become a priest. Although he learns quickly, he has one large flaw: he can't stop drawing cats. Eventually, he goes to another temple, finds it abandoned, and having no where else to go, prepares to stay the night. The blank walls entice him, and soon they are covered with all manner of very realistic cats. As he goes to bed he recalls a mysterious warning that a wise one gave him,"Avoid large places (at night)-keep to small," and he hides inside a cabinet to sleep. He is awakened by horrible noises and in the morning finds he has been saved from a ugly rat goblin/demon. His artwork is very realistic indeed!

This story was originally published in 1918 by Lafcadio Hearn, who wrote and taught in Japan and was famous for retelling Japanese legends.

The Boy Who Drew Cats adapted by Margaret Hodges, Illus. by Aki Sogabe

In this version of the story, the hero is known only as a nameless boy until the end, when visitors to Japan are shown his drawings and told that they are the work of Sesshu Toyo.

Sogabe's book art is made with cut paper, watercolor and airbrush. He uses a muted color scheme of white, grey, brown and black with pops of color, such as the red of leaves on a tree, a candle's flame or the blood staining the cats' mouths. The boy draws detailed black and white cats and  he's shown being followed about by real kitties. The goblin is revealed only through a glimpse of its huge prickly and hooked tail.

The Boy Who Drew Cats Retold & Illus. by David Johnson.
This is the most expanded tale, probably because it is part of the Rabbit Ears (outstanding) series and originally came in a book, tape or videocassette format. It is read by William Hurt, and I still feel his flavor when I read the book myself. Happily, this version is now available on DVD and Amazon instant video. It is 30 minutes long.
In Johnson's story, the village's famine is directly attributed to the demon and the people are well aware of it. When the boy is taken to the temple, his loving mother gives him her wise advice. In order to rid the village of the goblin, the priest promises to write out the Lotus sutra a thousand times. When he tires, he asks the clever boy to work on it for awhile, but in addition to the lines, the boy fills the paper with cats!
 This leads to his dismissal, but before he leaves he finds that the demon has destroyed the temple in the night. The priest feels that it is the child's fault. Before the boy arrives at the next temple, he attempts to assist a blacksmith, but fails at that task as well and the smithy is burned down overnight. During each of these attacks, the boy has been hidden away in a small place.
The rest of the tale proceeds much the same as we have read.
David Johnson is a self taught artist who had been a professional illustrator for more than twenty years as of 1991, when this book was published. The pictures are warmed with toasty golden tones. Long views of buildings and rooms give us a perspective of tiny humans and are mingled with close ups of characters. The boy's cats are very fluid outlines that still convey the business and behavior of felines. The rat demon is never shown, although after its death, the boy's departure is observed by a cat, a bird and a benign, average sized rat.

The Boy Who Drew Cats retold by Arthur A. Levine, Paintings by Frederic Clement

In this story, our boy artist is called Kenji and when he is taken to the temple he finds a friend in a young priest, Takada, and a stern critic in an older priest, Yoshida. It is Yoshida who eventually kicks out the "lazy" boy, and Takada who advises him to keep to small places.
 After the battle between the goblin and the cats, instead of finding bloodied drawings, Kenji finds that  all of the cats he drew are gone save one, the King of Cats , who is presiding over the Goblin Rat's sword. The villagers know that they are free and reward the talented boy by allowing him to stay and work in the renovated temple, leading to his fame as an artist who specializes in cats.

Frederic Clement's pictures are in earthy, muted tones with sparing use of color. Parchment like backgrounds feature text and surround color plates. Each text page is headed by a Japanese character related to the unfolding story, as when the character kachi (victory) precedes the part where Kenji meets the King of Cats. Each character also houses a detail of the painting near it, for example, tiny rat faces peer out of the character tatakai (fight) next to the painting of the terrible giant rat and his underlings.  Pronunciations and meanings are given at the back.

 The art is often surrealistic, with Kenji drawing orange koi swimming through the barren landscape, green cat's eyes peering from crumpled autumn leaves and the giant goblin rat's tail winding around the mountain and becoming the staircase that Kenji climbs to reach the abandoned temple. These are the most fully developed drawings of cats of the three books, and the most eerie, watching Kenji as he creates them. A large cat encircles the boy with its now three dimensional tail, waiting as he paints it with tiger stripes. The reader can see eyes emerging from the panels, waiting to become part of fully realized cats. This goblin rat is completely revealed to us and he is no disappointment, with glowing red eyes, a fine costume, a long sword and a posse of what suggests hundreds of normal sized grey rats.

Super Fruit Babies

In these stories, miraculous children born from fruit defeat evil and save their villages. All in a day's work when you're a fearless hero.

Momotaro by Mitchell Motomora, Illus. by Kyuko Tsugami
Momotaro the Peach Boy is born from a huge peach that his mother finds floating down the river. All goes happily until he is 15 years old, and some ogres raid his village and return with their spoils to Ogre Island. Equipped with a bag of cakes, Momotaro sets off to defeat the foul ogres. With the help of a dog, bird and monkey, is he up to the task? What do you think? 
Following the story are some suggestions to extend children's reading experience, such as having them retell the story, draw pictures about it, etc. Another suggestion is to share other Japanese folktales with kids, and hopefully this blog will provide some options for that.
Momotaro is nicely illustrated by Kyuko Tsugami. My favorites are the pictures of the ogres, apparently done in the Japanese style. They are bizarre, large and have long canine teeth, but are not too scary. These ogres are one bright color from head to toe and wear gold bangles on their wrists and ankles. They are completely amused by Momotaro and his small band. Our hero, however is completely serious, and is dressed to get down to business with a sword and a fan decorated with the rising sun. Apparently, Japanese war fans were used by Samurais and are called Tessen or "Iron fan."
This is an exciting story, and is even better paired with the girl power version below.
Tasty Baby Belly Buttons by Judy Sierra, Illus. by Meilo So
Like Momotaro's parents, Uriko's parents find their unborn child floating down river, this time inside a melon. She grows at a magical pace and when she is five, she has learned to cook millet dumplings and sword fight. One day, a bunch of Oni giants come to Uriko's town to gather babies so that they can eat their navels for snacks. They gleefully sing " Belly buttons! Belly buttons! Tasty baby belly buttons!" Like Momotaro, Uriko gathers her newly-made animal friends and sets off to make the Oni sorry. The Oni may not be interested in noshing on Uriko, since she lacks a navel, but can she defeat them? Take a look at the book's cover, above, and make your best guess!
Sierra's lively version, based on stories told in Shimane prefecture, is a perfect read-aloud. She explains that she uses certain Japanese storytellers' vocabulary like boro, boro ("'We won't, we promise, boro boro,' sobbed the oni") and zushin, zushin ("A troop of oni came tromping into town, zushin, zushin."). Sierra is a former children's librarian, and it's obvious that she knows what children want. Her early books were on how to tell stories, and do puppet plays. Read about her at: Judy Sierra
Tasty Baby Belly Buttons is playfully illustrated by Meilo So. This is evident beginning with book's cover, where the Bs in the title each have belly buttons.The fat and comical Oni have furry knees, long claws and very visible belly buttons of their own. Uriko's kimono reflects her fruity origin, with watermelon coloring and a black seed design around the neckline.
 The pictures have a lot of movement, as when Uriko pitches millet dumplings to her new animal friends, steers her boat to Onigashima, the Oni's  island home, and frees the evidently delighted babies, with a chubby cheeked infant wrapped in one arm. and a sword in her other hand.
I love the overall package of this book: the outrageous story, gutsy heroine and fun illustrations. It is a pleasure to share with others!