Sakura’s Cherry Blossoms – Robert Paul Weston and Misa Saburi, Tundra Books, 2018
There is a Japanese aesthetic and philosophy known as mono no aware, which translates approximately as “the sadness of things.” Sakura’s Cherry Blossoms is a child-size version of this acknowledgement that all the things that fill life, and life itself, are impermanent. Robert Paul Weston and Misa Saburi have created a picture book about a little girl leaving her home to find a new one, and it is infused with this belief, in an utterly unaffected way. While the language seems simple and unassuming, Weston has actually composed the story as tanka, a Japanese verse form somewhat less familiar in the west than haiku. While haiku have, in translation, three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, tanka follows those lines with two more of seven syllables each. If you are not familiar with the form, or too engrossed in Sakura’s experience to notice it, an afterword explains the form, and encourages readers to try writing in it.
Sakura lives in Japan and has a close relationship with Obaachan, her grandmother. Saburi depicts their bond in two initial pictures. In the first, they sit on a blanket under a cherry tree, Obaachan in a kimono, and a cane at her side reminding the reader of her age, and therefore, relative frailty. Her legs are folded under her, and her geta, (shoes), are on the grass. Sakura’s western style shoes are also on the grass, and she is sitting as any child might, her legs sticking out. Slanted black lines around her eyes and face also indicate Obaachan’s age.
The next page continues to illustrate their relationship, although they do not appear. Instead, Saburi shows only their empty shoes, and a close-up of their picnic food, including an artfully arranged bento, or box lunch. The tanka relates the deep bond between grandmother and grandchild, which can no more last forever than the cherry blossoms shading them:
“Together they sat
in the shade of pink petals
watching them flutter.
They ate bento box lunches.
They told each other stories.”
Sakura’s father’s job takes them to live in America, where Sakura is lonely. A picture of her in front of her new school, a monumental building attended by grey silhouettes of students, shows Sakura as a purple figure with a long purple shadow. In the sky, the clouds form white shoes, and an animal shape that she now learns is no longer a neko, but a cat. One consolation is Sakura’s developing friendship with a quiet and sensitive boy named Luke, who loves astronomy, and even understands that stars, like cherry blossoms, are both temporary and beautiful: “they fade, so we treasure them/because one day they vanish.”
The most difficult part of the book is the illness, and implicit death, of Obaachan.
Sakura’s mother explained that they had to return to Japan, where we see Obaachan in her hospital bed, an I.V. attached to an arm. She is comforted at seeing Sakura, declaring, “It is all that I wanted./Only this, and nothing more.” Parents reading this book with young children may react in different ways to this ambiguity. The fact that Obaachan’s death is not specifically reported makes it easy to avoid that part of the narrative, instead explaining that she had been fulfilled by seeing her granddaughter, at that Sakura then returns to her new home. Other parents may be uncomfortable at the apparent lack of resolution, which could seem dishonest. I felt that, since the book does not elaborate on events or details, but rather explores relationships between the characters, the author’s choice was consistent.
Sakura is sad; one might even call her depressed. Even her friendship with Luke temporarily fails to support her. One devastating image shows her standing atop a globe, her back to the reader, and a cloud sending a steady rain over her. But she eventually learns that the quiet beauty of everyday life and the love of her family and friends represent everything that Obaachan had given her. Sakura’s Cherry Blossoms offers young readers an explanation of loss which is both more artistic and more compassionate than books that offer explanations or advice about dealing with loss. Her friend Luke gently recommends his own fixation on the stars: “‘When I’m down,’” he said,/I find it helps to look up.” Sakura takes his advice:
“Sakura saw stars,
sprinkles of light, and the moon,
pearl-gray and shining.
Its craters were like wide eyes
watching the whole world at once.”
Sakura’s Cherry Blossoms is a subtle tribute to attachment and loss, as beautifully structured as a tanka.