2020 GLLI Translated YA Book Prize Goes to The Beast Player and Maresi Red Mantle

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

The wait for this year’s Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLLI) Translated YA Book Prize is over!

As announced on April 2, GLLI have selected not one but two titles for the top prize, one of which is Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player, translated from the Japanese by Cathy Hirano. This adds to Uehashi’s list of international accolades since Hirano’s translation of the first book in the Moribito series won global recognition in 2009. The Beast Player shares the prize with fellow fantasy title Maresi Red Mantle by Finland’s Maria Turtschaninoff, translated from the Finno-Swedish by A. A. Prime.

One other Japanese title, Kazuki Kaneshiro’s Go, translated by Takami Nieda, also made the 13-strong shortlist.

Lockdown? Another reason to stay home and wander around the worlds created in these books! Stay safe everyone.

The Picture Book Art of Chiki Kikuchi

Chiki Kikuchi (EhonNavi)

By Alexa Frank, Tokyo, and Emily Balistrieri, Tokyo

Though his latest book may be titled Shiro to kuro (White and Black), the world of prolific picture book author and illustrator Chiki Kikuchi is anything but. After debuting in 2012 with Shironeko kuroneko (White Cat, Black Cat; Gakken Plus), which won the prestigious Golden Apple award at the Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava (BIB), Kikuchi underwent a major shift in style. Exchanging his sumptuous black lines and white spaces for inventive displays of color, Kikuchi’s books feature animals and children playing amid abstract visions of nature and inner universes. And his words are just as lively as his brushstrokes—Kikuchi’s work gestures toward big questions about loneliness, self-worth, and identity without sacrificing the childlike sense of wonder that has gained him fans all across Japan. 

Art by Chiki Kikuchi on display in Kichijoji, Tokyo, in fall 2019 (photo courtesy Kaori Nagaoka). Click to enlarge.

In fall 2019, Tokyo’s Kichijoji Art Museum held White and Black: A Chiki Kikuchi Picture Book Exhibition, a major showcase of Kikuchi’s original artwork. Longtime fans and Kikuchi newbies alike had the rare opportunity not only to see Kikuchi displays up close, but also to attend Kikuchi-led art workshops and experience live musical and dance collaborations. One of the highlights was a November talk show event that capped off the exhibition: a revealing conversation among Kikuchi, his editor Kaori Nagaoka, and book designer Hideyuki Saito. 

Nagaoka, Saito, and Kikuchi’s relaxed dynamic on stage spoke to the team’s loyal working relationship. They had collaborated on all of Kikuchi’s Kodansha books, and one of the reasons why Kikuchi’s books have been so successful is undoubtedly that this team appears to be on the same creative wavelength. It was Saito who picked the covers for Shiro to kuro and Momiji no tegami (Maple Leaf Letter; Komine Shoten). To evoke the changing of seasons, Saito designed the Momiji no tegami cover with red paper reminiscent of autumn leaves—a choice Kikuchi was very much a fan of. Momiji’s original cover art was notably missing from the Kichijoji exhibit; it had won a plaque at BIB 2019 and was still on display at Bratislava Castle in Slovakia.

Momiji no tegami (Maple Leaf Letter; Komine Shoten)

Kikuchi’s son was born the day of the 2013 BIB Golden Apple award ceremony—and was almost named Ringo (apple in Japanese) to celebrate the occasion. However, Kikuchi instead decided to honor his young son via his next book, Boku da yo boku da yo (It’s Me, It’s Me; Rironsha), inspired by their father and son playtime. 

Boku da yo, boku da yo (It’s Me, It’s Me; Rironsha)

Neko no sora (A Cat’s Sky; Kodansha) was commissioned by Nagaoka. Already a fan of Kikuchi’s paintings, Nagaoka first met him at a gallery exhibition and quickly became a fan of Kikuchi as a person as well. They worked together closely, creating a heartfelt narrative, which Nagaoka describes as “maybe more meta than the other stories about Chiki and his son.”

Neko no sora (A Cat’s Sky; Kodansha)

K: We didn’t decide right away that it was a tree and a cat.

N: But we were thinking it would be good to have a tree.

K: And there was a tree in front of my apartment where I was living, and I thought it was good. The landlord was feeding a bunch of stray cats out there. So the book kind of came together from those images. So okay, the tree will be me and the cat will be my son, I guess? It was all very natural. And when I was writing the scene where the cat takes a step away from the tree, I remember feeling a bit tearful. Like oh, my son will grow up…

When his son was old enough to realize his dad was a picture book author, he requested a book about a tiger, which thrilled Kikuchi. “I was so happy that I wanted to do it immediately!” That became Tora no ko Torako (Torako the Tiger Cub; Shogakukan).

When it comes to Kikuchi and words, Nagaoka says, “Lately, Kikuchi has been writing his text ideas on sticky notes during the draft stage, but maybe he’s always done that in his head. Changing one word in a picture book can change a whole scene. Kikuchi always reads the text out aloud. He thinks so carefully about the number of the characters in a book, what they say and where they’re placed…he really considers every part of the process.” 

The everyday conversations among Kikuchi, Nagaoka, and Saito have often influenced the direction of their books—nothing is ever decided at the beginning, which makes perfect sense for the medium. Words and art in a picture book inform one another: the colorful explosion of Boku da yo boku da yo mimics the way young children can find their own language through exploration. For Shiro to kuro, however, the team strove to strike a balance between black and white and color.

Shiro to kuro (Black and White) on the sign for the fall 2019 exhibition in Tokyo (photo courtesy Kaori Nagaoka). Click to enlarge.

The book stars Shiro, a white cat stand-in for Kikuchi’s son, and Kuro, a black dog, as they explore their surroundings and the complicated emotions we come across as children but lack the words for. Kikuchi has always liked black and white art. Of his earlier work, he says, “I didn’t feel like I was very good at using colors…when you add color, that’s the first thing people notice. But with black and white, I like that people can imagine the colors.” Just as one might when listening to the piano—Nagaoka was studying piano during the initial Shiro to kuro meetings, and lent Kikuchi a CD to listen to. Kikuchi was inspired by Nagaoka describing the spaces between notes as smooth, and wanted to put that feeling into a picture book. 

The making of Shiro to kuro, however, was decidedly bumpy—from the title to the writing to the printing process, the book underwent many changes before it hit the shelves. Kikuchi was unsatisfied with the original title (Ii na Ii na, “I’m jealous, I’m jealous”) and text, and decided to essentially write two books (one starring Kuro, one starring Shiro), and merge them together. This caused the book to undergo a total rewrite, which may have thrown off another editor, but not Nagaoka. She was delighted by the changes. It was only after Kikuchi’s extensive revisions that the book seemed to come together, and Saito, too, was happy to roll with it. Saito encouraged Kikuchi to simplify the cover’s color palette to black, white, and red to create greater contrast between the book’s central characters. The colors also start to thin out by the end of the book, which Kikuchi says mirrors how the sky lightens with the sunrise. “The sky starts brightening because Kuro’s thinking about Shiro. It’s still night, but there are more white scenes because his whole head is full of Shiro…so I used black less and less.” The overall book design was shaped by Kuro’s feelings—a decision Kikuchi credits to Saito. 

Art by Chiki Kikuchi on display in Kichijoji, Tokyo, in fall 2019 (photo courtesy Kaori Nagaoka). Click to enlarge.

Towards the end of the talk show, Kikuchi spoke about his son’s contributions to the exhibition. “Sometimes my son is sensitive and you can really see it in his body language, sort of like Shiro and Kuro,” Kikuchi says. As the opening drew closer, Kikuchi employed his son to help him create a paper sculpture of Shiro. The key to Kikuchi’s picture books really seems to be his son, who influences him so much. As his son and other young readers look at Kikuchi’s pages and imagine a great, big world, adult readers take pleasure in how Kikuchi puts them back in touch with their childhood selves, finding excitement in the small pleasures of the everyday. Just as words and images work together to shape a picture book, that white space between childhood wonder and adult understanding informs how we read them. And the Kichijoji Kikuchi exhibition, happily, gave us much room to dwell. 

Shiro to kuro (White and Black) by Chiki Kikuchi and the other titles in this post have not yet been published in English translation. We hope they will be soon! 

Tomo Anthology Supports Kesennuma NPO Sokoage

By Holly Thompson, Kamakura
Editor, Tomo Anthology

March 11, 2020 marked nine years since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and eight years since the Stone Bridge Press publication of Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction–An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories. Port cities along the coast are still in the midst of massive reconstruction projects and neighborhood development and revitalization, and this past autumn brought harsh new challenges to recovering areas of Tohoku with damaging typhoons. Typhoon number 19 (Hagibis) in October caused devastating floods resulting in nearly 100 deaths in Tohoku–the majority in Fukushima Prefecture. The Tomo Anthology community helped to spread the call for volunteers to help with inundation clean-up efforts.

As recovery from the 2011 Great East Japan triple disasters and recent typhoons continues, proceeds from sales of the Tomo Anthology still assist programs for teens in Tohoku. In 2019, the Tomo Anthology donated 100,000 JPY to the certified NPO 底上げ Sokoage in the city of Kesennuma in the northeast Miyagi Prefecture.

In October, I traveled up to Tohoku to participate in post-typhoon volunteer flood clean-up work in Miyagi prefecture, and was able to visit Kesennuma to meet with Takafumi Narumiya, one of Sokoage’s four staff members, in Pier 7’s waterfront Square Ship co-working space.

Narumiya-san explained Sokoage’s broad aims to provide opportunities for youth in the area, foster community, cultivate connections across generations, and support camps and programs for college students to engage with their Miyagi Prefecture communities from wherever they may be based.

The Sokoage Facebook page offers a glimpse at these programs and provides a sense of the spirit and dedication of the individuals at the heart of this NPO.

Your purchases of the Tomo Anthology which include 36 Japan stories for teens, including ten in translation, will help us continue to support teen programs in recovering areas of 3/11 impacted communities in Tohoku. Thank you!

May the Tohoku cities and towns hard hit by the 2011 triple disasters continue to utilize their resilience and determination to come together to create vibrant Tohoku communities for generations to come.

Cross-posted from the Tomo blog with permission.

Ninth Anniversary of 3.11

The SCBWI Japan Translation Group joins people around the world in remembering victims and survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011. We continue to add news stories about young people’s experience of the disaster to the Children of Tohoku page. Kindly let us know if you spot stories to add. Thanks.

Batchelder, Printz Honors for The Beast Player

By Malavika Nataraj, Singapore

The new decade has begun on a high note for Cathy Hirano: Her translation of Nahoko Uehashi’s YA novel The Beast Player has been named a Batchelder Honor Book and a Printz Honor Book for 2020!

Hirano is no stranger to accolades. As the translator of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit and Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness by Uehashi, as well as The Friends by Kazumi Yumoto, Hirano has three prior Batcheldor Award/Honor books under her belt. In addition, her translation of Yours Sincerely, Giraffe by Megumi Iwasa, illustrated by Jun Takabatake, was shortlisted for the 2018 UKLA Book Awards, and her translation of the non-fiction book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo and its sequel are international best-sellers. She has translated across numerous age categories and genres, from picture books to adult books and from nonfiction to fantasy.

The Beast Player in English encompasses the first two volumes in a series by the cultural anthropologist and author Nahoko Uehashi, recipient of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing.

The Beast Player is set in a multicultural and complex world. It follows the adventures of a young, biracial orphan girl named Elin who is raised in the mountains by a beekeeper. She is later trained in a school for beast doctors, where she learns to tame huge, winged, wolf-like creatures who help her in her quest to save the kingdom’s throne.

Cathy Hirano’s enchanting translation has made this pacy and thrilling story possible for English-reading audiences to enjoy, about a decade after it took Japanese readers by storm.

Chirri and Chirra at Words Without Borders

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

A Japanese children’s picture book in translation has made the Words Without Borders 2019 holiday gift list. Kaya Doi’s Chirri and Chirra, Underground, translated by David Boyd for Enchanted Lion Books, sees the two girls get on their bicycles again, this time in pursuit of whoever made a hole in their cellar wall!

The other Japanese title alongside Doi’s color-pencil adventure is Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, translated by Stephen Snyder for Pantheon, under sci-fi and speculative fiction. See the other titles that made the list and treat yourself to some delectable interviews and excerpts!

A Japanese Poetry “Slam” in English

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

Ready to whack a waka?

A new game gets children and adults doing just that!

The waka is a classical poetry form that predates haiku by nearly a thousand years. Poems in the form have a syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7 in Japanese.

The Ogura Hyakunin Isshu is a centuries-old collection of a hundred waka by different poets, compiled by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241). During the Edo Period (1603-1868), this collection begot a popular game in which a reader chants each waka, and two players vie to be the first to slap a card printed with only the waka’s last two lines. The object is to slap and get rid of all the cards on one’s own side; winning requires not only knowing the poems, but also memorizing card placement and avoiding penalties for mis-slaps.

At advanced levels, Hyakunin Isshu karuta—or karuta, cards—is a sport of sharp listening, lightning-fast movement, and “reading” one’s opponent as well as the cards. The official game in Japan features player rankings, mastery levels, and tournaments; the top tournament, held at New Year’s time, decides male and female national champions.

High schools may also field karuta teams for group competition, as dramatized in a teen manga series—and movies, anime and novels—called Chihayafuru. The first 17 volumes of the manga by Yuki Suetsugu are out in English translation by Ko Ransom, published by Kodansha Comics.

A montage of scenes from the Chihayafuru movies (Toho Co., Ltd.)

Now Peter MacMillan, translator of the Penguin Classics edition of the Hyakunin Isshu, has developed an English version of the card game, illustrated by Yasushi Yokoiyama and manufactured by Kawada, makers of the Nanoblock®. MacMillan’s game soft-launched at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, which hosted a mini high school tournament in January 2017.

After hearing MacMillan speak this month at Japan Writers Conference 2019, I asked my husband and our daughters, aged 8 and 11, to try the English game at home. It was a hit! (Pun intended.)

Being familiar with the Japanese version of the game thanks to Chihayafuru, my family couldn’t help but notice a few differences. The cards in English are horizontal, not vertical. They feature illustrations of the poems, while the original playing cards show only words. In addition, the Whack a Waka cards feature modern English renderings of poems that we were used to hearing in classical Japanese, which confused us at times.

On the other hand, the translations helped us better understand the meanings of many poems. And as in Japanese, the game provided an active, engaging way to share poetry together. The girls especially loved it when my husband and I squared off in the game and “sent” romantic waka to each other (“sending” happens when a player slaps a card on the other person’s side and then gets to pass away one of their own).

Privately, I enjoyed knowing that the girls were learning aspects of Japanese aesthetics—such as evanescence, exemplified by references to falling cherry blossoms—without us saying a word. MacMillan’s prize-winning literary translations made for a game refreshingly different than Uno, Guess Who? or Yahtzee.

If you’re looking for an unusual gift this holiday season, Whack a Waka may be right! If you’re giving it to a devoted reader, also include the anthology for quiet contemplation. Some poems take on a new life on the page, where they can occupy more than the five lines allowed on the cards.

Peter MacMillan shows his twenty-five line translation of the waka Ashibiki no by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (662-710), which refers to the long tail of the copper pheasant. Japan Writers Conference 2019, Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo.

See also SCBWI Japan at the Japan Writers Conference.