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.
Are 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.
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”.
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.”
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.
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.
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…
…where we saw echoes of the architecture and landscaping in Are You an Echo?…
…and enjoyed taking the time to draw some of the things we found most beautiful.
On our way home we stopped at an Asian supermarket and bought ingredients to make our own sushi – a first for us:
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.
For dessert we had some sweet mochi, echoing a meal shared by Misuzu Kaneko and her daughter in the book.
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:
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by its publisher, Chin Music Press.