East, West, and Change
There is a fairly long tradition of children’s books about Japan for western readers. Taro Yashima’s Crow Boy (1956; available in a paperback edition from 1976) addressed the problem of fitting in to a hostile society. Yoshiko Uchida’s works explored both Japanese traditions and recent history in numerous works, including New Friends for Susan (1951), the story of a Japanese American child living in California. There are new works released for readers in English every year as Americans and Canadians continue to be fascinated by Japan.
Suki’s Kimono is less an introduction to Japanese culture than the story of a child caught between affection for her grandmother and the demands of conforming to the norms of her friends in school. Thanks to the support of a kind teacher as well as her own innate self-confidence, Suki is able to appreciate her grandmother’s gifts of a beautiful blue kimono and red geta (clogs). The author and illustrator express the sense of integration and happiness experienced by Suki as she sticks to her unarticulated conviction that her grandmother’s way of life holds wonder and meaning.
Uegaki’s text and Jorisch’s pictures are equally straightforward in chronicling Suki’s experiment with tradition. After her obāchan’s visit, Suki insists on wearing the kimono, even as her sisters warn her how ill advised this decision is: “’You can’t wear that,’ said Yumi. ‘Everyone will laugh, and no one will play with you.’” Her sisters have looks of disdain painted on their faces.
Their mother, wearing fashionable pants and a tank top, folds her arms across her chest, more puzzled than annoyed by Suki’s persistence, as Suki descends the stairs in her kimono and geta. The author is explicit about how Suki connects the garment to her grandmother’s culture and to the sense of community that she absorbs during her visit:
“The first time Suki wore it, her obāchan took her to a street festival where they slurped bowls of slippery, cold sōmen noodles an shared a cone of crunchy, shave ice topped with a sweet red bean sauce….She watched the other women and children who danced, especially those who were dressed in cotton kimonos like her.”
Jorisch’s illustration style is distinct and immediately recognizable as his. People have cartoon-like expressions on their rounded faces, with broad smiles or angrily lowered eyes and mouths reflecting the author’s words. Suki is sometimes still and often in motion, her theatrical and yet natural gestures telling the young reader what is going on inside her. On the last page, she spontaneously “pulled out the pale pink handkerchief from her obi and held it up over her head to catch the wind…Suki danced all the way home.” She has navigated the difficulties of fitting in and standing out; her story will encourage kids to do likewise.
Rosemary Wells is an artist who has many favorite objects and influences: origami, postage stamps, collage and colored papers, Asian art, and a variety of animals with human traits. In Yoko’s Paper Cranes, Yoko enjoys a warm and loving relationship with her grandparents. Her grandfather, ojiisan, teaches her how to make “cranes, frogs, and lots of other animals out of his colored papers.”
These items, and other scenes in the book, shine brightly with colored patterns and illuminated gold against the pages. One day, Yoko and her parents leave Japan and her grandparents. The dramatic rupture of this event is shown as a ship, also enhanced with colored paper trim, is tossed on a wave in the style of 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai (insert image from book and maybe Great wave at Kanegawa.)
Wells believes in connections between people as lasting and profound. Yoko exchanges letters with her grandparents; they appear as a zigzag of envelopes almost touching one another at the bottom of the page. When Yoko learns to create origami paper cranes, she proudly sends them to Japan, where her grandmother displays them. The book ends, not with simplistic reassurance that they will be reunited, but with a more resigned and less clear conclusion: “Obaasan sipped her green tea/while the snow fell outside the window.” The cats are smiling in virtually every picture of this story, but there is an undertone of sadness. “Soon I will come back to Japan, just like the cranes,” Yoko writes her grandmother, but children cannot determine adult’s choices. Yoko’s Paper Cranes, like Suki’s Kimono, emphasizes the bonds of tradition across generations, but both books also admit that those bonds are altered by the necessity of change.