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.

Flash Review: Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes

By Maureen Tai, 17 April 2022

In Ordinary Hazards (ages 14+), Nikki Grimes’ eye-and-heart-opening verse memoir for young adults, she recounts her trauma-filled childhood and tumultuous teenage years with unflinching honesty, breathtaking courage and luminous prose. Despite being born to a mother bedevilled by mental illness and alcoholism, forcibly separated from her only sibling, seemingly abandoned by her musician father and sexually assaulted by her mother’s lover (this list of harrowing life circumstances being, by no means, exhaustive), the author not only survives but thrives, sustained primarily by her unbridled passion for reading and writing. As the words of Kahlil Gibran gave the author solace and inspiration, so do her words – never self-pitying but always strong and hopeful and resilient – give solace and inspiration to her readers. Ordinary Hazards is a powerful, anything-but-ordinary, coming-of-age story of glorious triumph over heartbreaking adversity. A note for parents: the novel deals with mature themes and includes (appropriately) strong language.

Flash Review: Tofu Quilt by Ching Yeung Russell

By Maureen Tai, 31 December 2021

It seems fitting that the last book review for the year is Tofu Quilt (ages 8+), a thoughtfully written and heartfelt autobiographical verse novel about a young girl growing up in 1960’s Hong Kong. Yeung Yeung dreams of becoming a writer, despite the discouraging societal norms of the time and the disapproval of her wider family. Bolstered by the unwavering support of her headstrong mother, Yeung Yeung perseveres with her education and with her writing, her ambition also fuelled by her love for “dan lai“, a mouthwatering, steamed milk-egg-dessert still enjoyed by many in Hong Kong today. Yeung Yeung’s empowering story is one of hope and resilience, and refreshingly, is about a Chinese girl finding her own way in her Asian home rather than discovering herself by escaping from it. Tofu Quilt is an authentic, gorgeously written story that will resonate deeply, in particular with young readers of Chinese descent.

Flash Review: The Wild Book by Margarita Engle

By Maureen, 29 November 2021

The Wild Book (ages 8+) is Cuban American poet, Margarita Engle’s, fictional verse novel inspired by her grandmother’s life in Trinidad, Cuba. Set in the early 1900s, Fefa is an eleven-year-old guajira (country girl). She’s the only child in her large family who has word-blindness, the term used then for what we know today as dyslexia. Her mother, who could have been a poetess if her circumstances had been different, gives Fefa a book of blank pages, and encourages the girl to be patient and to persevere with her reading and writing. Engle’s evocative verse pulls us hypnotically into Fefa’s colourful, lush life of too many siblings, lurking dangers and hidden fears, until we too are dreaming of riddles and towers, caimans and esperanzas (crickets), and lines made of beautiful, haunting words.