Flash Review: The Happiest Tree by Hyeon-Ju Lee

By Maureen Tai, 8 August 2022

In The Happiest Tree, a tender, quietly philosophical picture book (ages 3+) by Korean writer and illustrator, Hyeon-Ju Lee, a young gingko tree is planted next to a row of apartment buildings. As the tree grows taller, what it sees through the windows of the building changes. The ground floor apartment bustles with little children at piano class. Several years later, the tree discovers that its ramrod straight trunk and fan-like leaves are inspiration for the artist who lives on the second floor. By the time the tree reaches the third floor of the building, and is able to look into the Kong’s canine-filled apartment, it is seventeen years old and living its happiest days. But seasons change, as seasons must, and the tree now spends lonely hours as it continues to age. As the tree grows closer and closer to the top of the building, it wonders, what lies ahead? Through joy and sorrow, the gingko tree remains patiently resolute and quietly optimistic, arguably the best way to be, not only for a tree but for all sentient beings on this miraculous earth. The sparse, yet effective text and thoughtful, charming illustrations make this unusual picture book a keeper for any bookshelf.

Flash Review: Elsa and the Night by Jöns Mellgren & translated by Anita Shenoi

By Maureen Tai, 31 May 2022

In Elsa and the Night, an art-gallery worthy picture book (4 – 8 years old) that doubles as a bedtime story, the titular Elsa is a homely looking badger who doesn’t like raisins. One early morning, as she is picking the sweet morsels out of her granola, she hears something moving underneath her sofa. Cleverly, Elsa entices the intruder with a saucer of sugar and success! She captures a cup-sized, fish-wriggly, shadowy-grey creature that turns out to be Night, somehow having carelessly wandered into Elsa’s house. Rather impulsively, the badger pops the creature into a tin and shuts it away in the basement without a second thought. Except, as the day drags on interminably without any respite or end in sight, Elsa begins to doubt the wisdom of her actions. Elsa eventually releases Night from captivity, and tells the newly-resuscitated creature the melancholic story of how she lost her ability to sleep after suffering a tragic loss …

Elsa’s tale of loss and redemption is told in simple, poetic language and with a wry humour that will resonate with fans of other similar darkish, contemplative picture books such as Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch. What makes Elsa and the Night stand out are the simply breathtaking illustrations: gorgeous scenes drawn from interesting angles and perspectives, splashed with warm, muted tones of plum, chocolate, cornmeal and sage. A delightful Swedish treat from start to finish, and a story that will most certainly stay with me.

Flash Review: Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, narrated & translated by David Jacobson, Sally Ito & Michiko Tsuboi & illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri

By Maureen Tai, 24 April 2022

Lost, but then found: the tender, luminous poetry of Misuzu Kaneko (1903 – 1929) and the story of her short, tragic life, unearthed through the obsessive, dogged determination of children’s writer, Setsuo Yazaki.

Are You An Echo? (ages 8+) is a beautifully rendered, picture book biography, the first English language publication of the Japanese poet’s works. Kaneko, the daughter of bookstore owners, stayed in school until her late teens, highly unusual for girls of that time. A reader and keen observer of every day life – from fish in the sea and pictures in a book to a flower seller and a pile of snow – Kaneko became a published writer of stories and poems for children by her early twenties, fading into obscurity after her premature death by her own hand. It would be many decades before Kaneko’s poems would be found by Yazaki (after a 16-year search!) and her voice rediscovered.

Kaneko’s poems, exquisite in their simplicity, sense of wonder and child-like playfulness, are now well-known and well-loved in Japan, in particular in the wake of the devastating 2011 tsunami. Despite her own dark troubles, Kaneko composed words of hope and joy that continue to touch and heal to this day, and this picture book – truly a labour of love – is a gentle, poignant and thought-provoking homage to the poet’s beautiful soul and her legacy. It is tempting to think that Kaneko herself would have heartily approved.

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf, adapted by Kochka & Olivier Latyk

By Maureen Tai, 10 February 2022

During a recent trip to my hometown in Malaysia, I visited the shamelessly Instagrammable BookXcess @ Kong Heng and my browsing was rewarded with a gorgeous picture book, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (ages 6+). I confess to not knowing at the time that the fable-like story was over a century old, and that its author, Selma Lagerlöf (1858 – 1940), is legendary in her native Sweden, being the first woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature (as she did in 1909). I had been attracted primarily to the book’s exquisite paper-cut pages and how cleverly they overlaid the whimsical illustrations on the cover and inside of the book. A blatant case of judging a book by its cover.

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