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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Flash Review: Snail Crossing by Corey R. Tabor

By Maureen, 6 December 2021

In Corey Tabor’s delightful picture book, Snail Crossing (ages 4+), an energetic and cheerful snail spies a bountiful field of cabbages on the other side of a dark, grey road. Our heroic – or overly optimistic? foolhardy? naive? – gastropod immediately decides he must get to those cabbages, and sets off resolutely to cross the road. He is oblivious to the dangers , but we, the mildly-stressed readers, are not. We resist the urge to cover our eyes as we turn the pages … The surprising and satisfying conclusion proves that luck and kindness go a long way, even if our lovely snail ultimately does not.

Flash Review: Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein & illustrated by Ed Young

By Maureen, 21 November 2021

As with most Japanese concepts, wabi sabi is not translatable into words. It is a way of being that must be lived.

Imagine then, my delight to discover Wabi Sabi, a brilliantly conceived picture book (ages 8+) that embodies all of the key elements of this illusive idea: from the inclusion of sparsely-worded haiku and the use of natural materials in the imaginative, earth-toned, mixed-media collage illustrations, to the unusual orientation of the book’s pages and its mud-splattered end papers. To younger readers, it is a story of a cat named Wabi Sabi, seeking the meaning of her name, and with it, discovering herself. To older readers, it is a loving and elegant homage to a very Japanese way of life, one that continues to endure to this day. Subarashi (wonderful).