Are You an Echo?

The very best books have an incredible property whereby they appear to take up just a small, slim space in the universe and yet when you open them up, your world expands and grows in both beauty and understanding.

The magic wrapped up in the covers of such books is something akin to that found in the woodgrain of Lucy’s wardrobe, the carpet bag of Mary Poppins, and the fabric of Ron Weasley’s tent, and yet it is a broadening of horizons and blossoming of wonder that can genuinely and personally happen to each of us in the real world.

kaneko-site-book-cover-1Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko written and translated by David Jacobson, Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi, illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri is one of these very special books which disguises depth, breadth and richness in its short pages. It is bold and tender, thoughtful and thought-provoking, handsome and restorative. It’s also full of innocent curiosity, delightful laughter and quiet but genuine kid-appeal.

Combining an illustrated biography of the Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko, with a short collection of her poetry, alongside an introduction to aspects of traditional Japanese culture as well as recent historical information about the country, Are You an Echo? is wide-reaching and brimming with eye-opening information alongside poems to make adults and children alike smile, marvel and think again.

Illustration by Toshikado Hajiri. for 'Are you an Echo?' published by Chin Music Press.
Illustration by Toshikado Hajiri. for ‘Are you an Echo?’ published by Chin Music Press.

The first half of this gloriously illustrated and attentively produced book tells the story of a poet, and how she became a household name in Japan 80 years after her death. Whilst many of us may not have previously heard of Misuzu Kaneko, her poem ‘Are You an Echo?’ was broadcast on Japanese TV to replace adverts following the 2011 Tsunami, and it captured a moment and mood across the country in a deep and lasting way. Her poetry is now part of the primary school curriculum throughout Japan.


The TV broadcast of ‘Are you an echo?’

A biography of a famous poet is hopefully grounds enough for any curious person to pick up this book, but there are many more reasons to do so. Misuzu broke barriers and refused to be constricted by societal norms. At a time when most Japanese girls only received six years of schooling (Misuzu was born in 1903), she studied until she was seventeen, and her first poems were published when she was just twenty, quickly becoming established as a “star children’s writer”.

Dowa, Sept. 1923 (Kodomosha;  reprinted by Iwasaki Shoten).  Appearing in 110 Years of Kaneko Misuzu (JULA Publishing Bureau). This magazine printed several of Misuzu's poems during the 1920s.
Credit: Dowa, Sept. 1923 (Kodomosha; reprinted by Iwasaki Shoten). Appearing in 110 Years of Kaneko Misuzu (JULA Publishing Bureau). This magazine printed several of Misuzu’s poems during the 1920s.
This image shows two poems by Misuzu including  “Osakana” (which is translated in Are you and Echo? as “Fish”). These poems were published in the magazine whose cover appears in the preceding image. Credit:  Dowa, Sept. 1923 (Kodomosha;  reprinted by Iwasaki Shoten).  Appearing in 110 Years of Kaneko Misuzu (JULA Publishing Bureau).
This image shows two poems by Misuzu including “Osakana” (which is translated in Are You and Echo? as “Fish”). These poems were published in the magazine whose cover appears in the preceding image. Credit: Dowa, Sept. 1923 (Kodomosha; reprinted by Iwasaki Shoten). Appearing in 110 Years of Kaneko Misuzu (JULA Publishing Bureau).
Credit: Nihon Doyoshu, 1926 edition (edited by the Society of Children’s Poets/Shinchosha).  Appearing in 110 Years of Kaneko Misuzu (JULA Publishing Bureau). The poem on the right appears in translation in "Are you an Echo?" as 'Big Catch'.
Credit: Nihon Doyoshu, 1926 edition (edited by the Society of Children’s Poets/Shinchosha). Appearing in 110 Years of Kaneko Misuzu (JULA Publishing Bureau). The poem on the right appears in translation in “Are you an Echo?” as ‘Big Catch’.
Osakana by Misuzu Kaneko, illustrated by Tomo Maezima. From volume15 number11 of the magazine Kodomo no Kuni, which appeared in Japan in the 1920s. This poem appears in translation on p.14 of 'Are you an Echo?' with the title "Fish". Credit: The International Library of Children's Literature
Osakana by Misuzu Kaneko, illustrated by Tomo Maezima. From volume15 number11 of the magazine Kodomo no Kuni, which appeared in Japan in the 1920s. This poem appears in translation on p.14 of ‘Are you an Echo?’ with the title “Fish”. Credit: The International Library of Children’s Literature

Although her writing career was taking off, Misuzu’s married life was full of sorrow; her husband tried to stop her from writing, and in the end, ill with a disease passed to her by her husband, Misuzu took her own life, aged just 30.

Suicide doesn’t often feature in illustrated / picture books. Thanks to help from members of JISC mail Picture Book Research list, and in particular Mary Galbraith and Silvana Gilig, I have come across just two other examples: Dulle Griet by Belgian author Geert de Kockere with illustrations by Carll Cneut (who I interviewed here), and I Never Knew Your Name by Sherry Garland.

In Are You an Echo?, Misuzu’s decision to take her own life is very sensitively handled by Jacobson, and I firmly believe that including it in this biography was the right thing to do. Books that go on to stand the test of time are often those which deal with big issues, helping kids to encounter and explore difficult concepts in safety. These are the books which don’t underestimate a child’s intelligence, resilience or capacity, but provide something sincere and sustaining. Jacobson’s retelling of Misuzu’s life does exactly this, and so too does her poetry.

In the first half of Are You an Echo? Misuzu’s poetry illuminates moments in her own life in the narrative by Jacobson. The second half of the book, however, is a mini anthology of free-standing poems, both in translation and in the original Japanese (how wonderful to have this bilingual text!), each enriched by a full page colour illustration.

And – Oh! – the poems! They are just so lovely! They capture a child’s wondering view on the world with an innocence and directness which really speaks to the heart (surely a sign of an excellent translation?). Children all start off asking “Why? How come? What for?” and Misuzu’s poetry captures that left-field, hungry curiosity with a delicacy and clarity that makes your eyes light up. I fear I sound very “adult” describing the poems this way, but the sense of delight (and recognition) was just as strong for my children when we shared this book together.

This mini anthology could go a long way to nurturing an open, questioning, interested take on the world for many children, and as such I hope it will find its way into very many schools, libraries and homes.

Wonder by Misuzu Kaneko, translated by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi

I wonder why
the rain that falls from black clouds
shines like silver.

I wonder why
the silkworm that eats green mulberry leaves
is so white.

I wonder why
the moonflower that no one tends
blooms on its own.

I wonder why
everyone I ask
about these things
laughs and says, “That’s just how it is.”

不思議

私は不思議でたまらない、

黒い雲からふる雨が、

銀にひかっていることが。



私は不思議でたまらない、

青い桑の葉たべている、

蚕が白くなることが。



私は不思議でたまらない、

だれもいじらぬ夕顔が、

ひとりでぱらりと開くのが。



私は不思議でたまらない、

誰にきいても笑ってて、

あたりまえだ、ということが。

Many of Misuzu’s poems take their readers out their own world view, to see things from a different perspective. They are highly imaginative and full of empathy and kindness, and sharing them would be such a simple, and enjoyable way of nurturing these traits in young readers and listeners.

So… we have a moving, inspiring story, along with charming, life-affirming poems and now we come to the illustrations. David Jacobson, the book’s primary author, sought high and low to find an illustrator who could convey an accurate feel of early 20th century Japan, and his research led him to Toshikado Hajiri, an illustrator previously unpublished in English-language markets.

Toshikado Hajiri, 35, graduated from Ritsumeikan University in international relations. Although he had always loved painting, for several years he followed his passion only in his spare time, whilst working at trading company and then teaching English. In 2006, he won the 2nd prize in the 2006 International Illustration Competition, but it was another three years till he had the confidence to go fulltime as a “freelance” illustrator, thanks to the support of his family and an opportunity which arose to join the textbook division of TOKYO SHOSEKI, Japan’s biggest textbook company.

Some of the Japanese books which Toshikado Hajiri has illustrated. Click on the picture to be taken to Hajiri's website to find out more (in Japanese).
Some of the Japanese books which Toshikado Hajiri has illustrated. Click on the picture to be taken to Hajiri’s website to find out more (in Japanese).

For the illustrations in Are You an Echo? Hajiri used a hard black coloured pencil (like those used for animation drawing) and acrylics, creating images with a wonderful softness and subtle blending of colour. He carried out comprehensive research into Japanese life in the early 1900s (when Misuzu Kaneko lived), and this shines through in his illustrations; they are packed with cultural and historical details that are intriguing and – to quote my 11 year old – “JUST AMAZING!”, enticingly drawing in readers from another time and culture into Misuzu’s own life.

Illustration by Toshikado Hajiri. for 'Are you an Echo?' published by Chin Music Press.
Illustration by Toshikado Hajiri. for ‘Are you an Echo?’ published by Chin Music Press.

In his own words, Hajiri notes “Many people  say the way I depict people (especially children) looks like that of Japanese animation.  I think that is because I was deeply influenced by Hayao Miyazaki and Akiko Hayashi (林明子, a painter I respect highly).  And I really love Norman Rockwell, who is, I believe, the greatest illustrator ever in illustration history. I was deeply influenced by his artwork (like the illustrations for Coca-Cola or the cover illustrations for “LIFE”). I love to depict people’s daily life.  That is, I think, partly because I encountered Rockwell’s works in my youth.

Hajiri’s illustrations work equally well alongside the free standing poems in the anthology section, where they appear as visual distillations of Misuzu’s beautiful poems, as well as when they are being used to convey more of the narrative structure of Misuzu’s biography and the story of how her poems were rediscovered after her death. Visual threads subtly link successive pages (do follow the story of the fish, from being caught at sea, to eaten at home), and watch how the seasons change echoing time passing as Misuzu grows up.

So this book manages to achieve something very special on every single level. A fascinating story, finely told, with glorious poetry, thoughtfully and powerfully translated, and beguiling illustrations… so please: Slip this slim book into your bag, or onto the shelf by your child’s bed, knowing at any time it has the power to open up your family’s world and make it richer, wider and more compassionate.

***************************

It’s certainly opened up our world at Playing by the book HQ. Whilst we couldn’t travel back in time, or across the globe, the kids and I decided to seek out a little bit of Japan in our own city. Armed with books about Japanese gardens and bonsai trees we headed off to a nearby botanical garden…

japanesegarden3

…where we saw echoes of the architecture and landscaping in Are You an Echo?

japanesegarden4

…and enjoyed taking the time to draw some of the things we found most beautiful.

japanesegarden1

On our way home we stopped at an Asian supermarket and bought ingredients to make our own sushi – a first for us:

sushi2

Making sushi (at least at our level) turned out to be a very playful experience – mixing lots of different delicacies and having fun with the appearance as well as the taste combinations.

sushi1

For dessert we had some sweet mochi, echoing a meal shared by Misuzu Kaneko and her daughter in the book.

mochi

What a book that can help you travel time and space, can foster understanding, can inspire you and cause you to reflect on some of the more difficult things life! And give you a terrific day out creating memories for the future. Really, what a book!

In case you need any further persuading this is a book you really need to seek out, here are some other reviews of this marvellous, unusual book here (Fuse Eight), here (Kirkus), here (Jama’s Alphabet Soup) and here (School Library Journal). You might also enjoy this article with one of the book’s translators, Sally Ito, and this interview with the book’s primary author, David Jacobson.

You can find out more about Misuzu Kaneko on the website misuzukaneko.com.

Other activities which would go well with the book include:

  • Making origami boats. One of our favourite poems in this collection is about a boat on New Year’s Day, taking away the year which has finished. I can quite see us starting a new family tradition of sailing little paper boats down our river on New Year’s Day!
  • Writing your own poetry (adults, and children and young people) where you take an inanimate object and imagine yourself into its life, echoing a common theme in Misuzu’s poetry. Just what might it be like to be the pavement under your feet? Or the rocks at the seaside?
  • Reading other children’s books translated from Japanese. Some picture books we’ve loved include several by Komoko Sakai and Can I Build Another Me? by Shinsuke Yoshitake. For older children, I’d recommend The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui.

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    Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by its publisher, Chin Music Press.

    13 Responses

    1. Jill Bennett

      Looks like a book I need to get my hands on.

    2. You had me with opening paragraphs, but by the end I really wanted this book. I’ll share it with children, but not until I’ve enjoyed every page

      • 🙂 I’m glad I’ve persuaded you Wendy. I think this book has so much to offer on all sorts of different levels.

    3. Incredible review, Zoe! LOVE the images of Misuzu’s poems from the magazines, and enjoyed learning more about Hajiri’s art. And your sushi and mochi look delicious :).

      • Yes, Jama, they’re great aren’t they. I’m really grateful to JULA for granting permission to reproduce them. An online friend based in Japan also sent me an image of one of Misuzu’s poems that is in her son’s Grade 4 school textbook. I’d have liked to include that too, but the image was a bit too small – but it would have been very interesting to show how the same poem in different times and places, with different illustrators, can have quite a different look and feel.

    4. Thanks, Zoe, for this wonderful review! I (and the others involved, I’m sure) particularly appreciate the way the book touched you and your family’s life beyond just reading the book.

      There are many, many samples of how Misuzu’s work has been published online. I did a search for instance, of “Kaneko Misuzu” and “textbook” (金子みすゞ 教科書) in Japanese on Google, and found the following (unverified) link to a page of a 3rd grade textbook which displays “Bird, Bell and I”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qfj2nrvG6M8. The image is somewhat blurry, but what makes this particular link so delightful, is a recording of a child reading the poem in Japanese.

    5. Wow, this book sounds stunning. Will try to get my hands on it. How tragic she took her own life, but amazing she has left this legacy behind her. I imagine you don’t get too much time for reading adult fiction but not long ago I read a book called Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng based around the creation of a Japanese Garden in Malaysia – it was incredible, I’d highly recommend it X

    6. ps How did your girls enjoy the sushi? I remember before you talking about them being fussy eaters when you were reviewing another (monster?) book

      • Well remembered Rebecca! One child refused to even try the sushi, but the other one thought it was ok to eat. Both really enjoyed the process of making it though – the playfulness of it, the mixing and matching. So I live in hope that by at least exposing them to different food, one day a switch will change and they will be more adventurous! Thanks for the tip about Garden of Evening Mists – I’ll look it up.
        Zoe recently posted..Where Dragon fact and fiction collide

    7. love that the books you read take you on such great adventures of your own. Always a delight to visit your blog
      Becky recently posted..How many women in the UK have more than one job ?

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