Nahoko Uehashi and Cathy Hirano Speak in 2020 Printz Virtual Ceremony (6:07-17:24)

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

This past Monday, June 29, I rose early for a megadose of inspiration: Nahoko Uehashi and Cathy Hirano speaking in the American Library Association’s 2020 Michael L. Printz Virtual Ceremony!

Uehashi and Hirano were accepting the Printz Honor for The Beast Player, a novel also named a 2020 Batchelder Honor Book.

In her acceptance speech, subtitled by Hirano, Uehashi described how the novel had grown in her mind from concrete experiences, such as inexplicably imagining (while driving!) a girl standing on a cliff in the wind, and reading a book by a beekeeper.

In her own acceptance speech, Hirano reflected on traveling from her native Canada to Japan at age 20 and then settling there. She had been inspired at age 12 by Bahá’u’lláh’s words, “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”

I found it rare and exciting to see an overseas author and translator feature in ALA’s awards day, during which the Caldecott, Newbery, and many other well-known awards were also conferred. The speeches made me want to get right back to translating!

Videos of all speeches from #TheBookAwardCelebration may now be found here. Thank you to the honorees, the 2020 Printz Committee, and the ALA for making Uehashi’s and Hirano’s speeches available!

The Beast Warrior, the sequel to The Beast Player, will be published Stateside on July 28, 2020.

Nanette McGuinness Talks with Emily Balistrieri, Translator of Andersen Award Winner Eiko Kadono

By Nanette McGuinness, San Francisco

SCBWI member Emily Balistrieri is the translator from Japanese into English of Overlord, by Kugane Maruyama, and The Refugees’ Daughter, by Takuji Ichikawa, among other titles. His translation of Kiki’s Delivery Service will be released by Delacorte Books for Young Readers in July 2020, after author Eiko Kadono won the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award in Writing. Emily translates books and manga for children and adults, video games, and anime subtitles from Japanese into English, and his latest children’s translation is a bilingual storybook in the “Mashin Sentai Kiramager” universe published by Kodansha in Japan.

Nanetta McGuinness (NM): I’ve read that you started out as a Russian major in college. What then drew you to Japanese and how did you decide to become a translator?

Emily Balistrieri (EB): Switching focus to Japanese was very dramatic because I canceled my study abroad in Russia. I still feel sad about that sometimes. But I just realized that if I was reading manga, into anime, obsessed with Haruki Murakami (this was in 2005ish), watching Takeshi Kitano films, listening to J-pop, playing Japanese video games, etc., there seemed to be a pretty clear path in Japanese, whereas I wasn’t sure what at the time what I would do with Russian. Thinking of it that way, it’s almost embarrassing—like picking which sport to play based on which local team gets more winning headlines. But I guess you have to pick somehow.

NM: I’m in awe of those proficient in a language that uses such a different character system, let alone such a fascinatingly different culture. The wonderful Cathy Hirano, who also works in this realm, has said that “translating between Japanese and English requires “fairly strenuous cultural and mental gymnastics.”* Can you talk about your experience and what it’s like translating from Japanese to English?

EB: I know that in some languages, the nitty-gritty of how well you can preserve the exact punctuation is a thing people consider. In Japanese, it can sometimes be, “Should these sentences even be in this order?” And there are plenty of instances when a question mark in Japanese is not a question mark in English.

As far as the characters go, it’s possible for people to be very creative with them. A great example is Hideo Furukawa’s new book where he takes the kanji for “forest” 森, which is made up of three “trees” 木, and adds three more 木 at the bottom (to make the pyramid shape bigger) for the title that is “pronounced” (and searchable as) おおきな森, “big forest”: the official English translation of the title is FFFFForesTTTT). One of my favorite parts of Japanese is rubi, characters placed over other (usually more complex) characters to show how to pronounce them. It gets interesting when, instead of writing the actual pronunciation, the author might put a word borrowed from another language, an explanation, or other somehow relevant text. In The Saga of Tanya the Evil, author Carlo Zen uses rubi at one point to make a euphemistic conversation about torture explicit to the reader. So the writing system can be front and center at times, but usually it’s easier to deal with than the grammar, at least for me.

The subject-object-verb order of Japanese (“I from Japanese to English translate”) is pretty easy to get used to. It gets tougher when a rarely used phrase pops up—one that you probably studied for a test at some point, but see so infrequently in the wild that you can never remember it properly. Similarly challenging are archaic forms, which some use to create atmosphere in the same way you might find Shakespearian flourishes in English. More common, but often frustrating, are sentences that come with a ton of qualifiers before the subject; they can contain info that, at least to an English reader, seems totally off-topic in the paragraph or just feels super wordy compared to what is actually being said. On the other hand, sometimes the way writers are able to layer in details is impressive, but it can still be a challenge to replicate in English.

NM: Kiki’s Delivery Service is a beloved Miyazaki anime classic with millions of fans worldwide, and its author, Eiko Kadono, won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing in 2018. So it’s very exciting that the book that inspired Miyazaki will be back in print for English-language readers. What was it like to labor in the shadow of such an iconic work and by a lauded, living author?

EB: Honestly, I tried to just take it one page at a time (in the turn-of-phrase sense, not literally, haha) and capture the spirit as best I could. Kirkus Reviews was kind enough to call the translation “descriptive and whimsical,” but of course that’s all Eiko Kadono’s writing; if the English readers are as charmed as Japanese readers are, then I did my job right.

NM: I think I saw that Kiki’s Delivery Service is actually part of a series. Has there been any discussion about translating and publishing more of the series into English?

EB: Yes! There are six books in the main series and then two other volumes. There hasn’t been any discussion (at least not involving me) yet, but maybe if the first book does well, we’ll be able to continue? I sure hope so because a lot happens. Imagine if only Anne of Green Gables had been translated into Japanese and none of other volumes! (Anne is an extremely popular character in Japan; there is a classic animated TV series and even a prequel series made to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the first book’s publication.)

NM: There are a number of differences between the Kiki’s Delivery Service film and the book—as generally happens when switching genres. Did you watch/rewatch the Miyazaki film when you were working on the translation? If you didn’t, it might be interesting to readers to hear why; if you did, could you talk about some of the differences between the book and the film?

EB: I deliberately avoided the movie (although I can still sing the English ending song from when I watched it as a kid), even in Japanese with no subtitles. Incidentally, I avoided the more recent live-action version, too. I didn’t want to be influenced by the way the characters were portrayed there, since this is specifically a translation of Kadono’s work.

Hayao Miyazaki kind of takes his inspiration and runs with it. Kadono has been quoted as saying that when she first saw the movie she was surprised how different it was. But she said she made sure before production started that he didn’t change the title or Kiki’s view of the world.**

NM: It’s always a fascinating process doing a retranslation.*** How did you prepare? Did you avoid looking at the first translation from 2003 so as not to be influenced, or did you read through it to know what you thought worked best? Were you able to have any contact with Lynne E. Riggs, the first translator, or with author Kadono?

EB: It was my first time translating it, so it never felt like a retranslation to me, even though that’s what it ends up as. I definitely avoided the previous translation because I wanted to come to the text completely fresh. A strange coincidence is that I have known Lynne Riggs for years because she is one of the founders of the Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators. I knew she had translated Kiki, so I never imagined that I or anyone else would be doing it. I feel almost a bit guilty, but I try to think of it as a sort of torch-passing. I definitely look up to her as a wordsmith community organizer here in the Kanto region (I’m sure she wishes I had more energy to help). She and the other members of SWET have a huge wealth of expertise and experience between them, so their events can be really inspiring.

NM: You’re listed on the title page of the book as the translator: congratulations! As a translator, I know how rare it is for an American publisher to do this. How did that come about? Once you turned in your translation to Delacorte, did you have any input on revisions?

EB: Thanks! I think “name on the interior” is how Delacorte does it. I went ahead and asked if the cover was possible, but it wasn’t this time. Never hurts to ask! The editing process was a bit irregular because the editor who brought me on was different from the one I did the bulk of the work with (Alexandra, if you’re reading this, please don’t be a stranger!), who is different from the one who finished the project. So I essentially did two rounds with them, and I know they made some other adjustments as well. Still, I’m used to just crossing my fingers after I submit a manuscript, so it was nice to be able to have so much back-and-forth for a change. I’m excited to see the final version.

NM: What are you currently working on? Any dream projects or books you’d like to translate next?

EB: Overlord and The Saga of Tanya the Evil are both ongoing series, so I’m always working on those, although they’re not for kids. I am chipping away on a masterpiece of a YA science-fiction novel about a first crush by Tetsuya Sato called Syndrome (and I’m pitching it, too, so please get in touch if this sounds good—it’s fantastic).

Other than that, here’s something to look forward to: I’m working again for Delacorte, to publish Shaw Kuzki’s Soul Lanterns. The protagonist is a 12-year-old girl living in Hiroshima 25 years after the atomic bomb, and the story is about how she and her classmates wrap their head around the horrors of the bomb and war, in general, by connecting with the adults in their community who experienced it firsthand. Kuzki is a second-generation A-bomb survivor, herself, so she’s an important voice to amplify in English. I really hope it’ll be a book that kids can read and discuss at school.

Thank you very much!

*“Catching up with Cathy Hirano,” SCBWI Japan Translation Group, May 14, 2011, https://ihatov.wordpress.com/2011/05/24/an-interview-with-cathy-hirano/ 

** In a Japanese-language interview she did after winning the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2018, https://www.bookbang.jp/article/554311 

*** Kiki’s Delivery Service was first translated into English by Lynne E. Riggs in 2003 for Annick Press, with illustrations by Akiko Hayashi—nearly two decades after it was published in Japan.

Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of over 50 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, and German into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her latest translations, Luisa: Now and Then (Humanoids, 2018) and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas (First Second, 2017) were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens; Luisa: Now and Then was also named a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book and a 2020 GLLI YA Honor Book. Her most recent translations are Little Josephine: Memory in Pieces (Life Drawn, 2020), Super Sisters (Papercutz, 2020), and Undead Messiah #3 (TOKYOPOP, 2020).

Cross-posted from SCBWI: The Blog with permission.

In Isolation but Connected: May 2020 SCBWI Japan Remote Creative Exchange

At SCBWI Japan’s Remote Creative Exchange on 30 May 2020: Translator Andrew Wong, writer Mari Boyle, and illustrator Naomi Kojima, all in Tokyo; translator Avery Udagawa in Bangkok, writer/translator/Exchange moderator Mariko Nagai in Tokyo, writer Suzanne Kamata in Tokushima; writer Amy Lange Kawamura in Fukushima (photo added after Exchange), writer Alana Matsui in Tokyo, and writer/translator Holly Thompson in Massachusetts. Several of the participants contributed manuscripts for friendly discussion by all.

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

At SCBWI Japan’s first-ever Remote Creative Exchange on 30 May 2020, translators connected with writers and illustrators in the U.S., Thailand, and various parts of Japan. Joining from the comfort of my balcony in self-imposed Covid-19 lockdown in Tokyo, while muting wailing sirens and brushing off intermittent distractions, I gleaned invaluable lessons on the craft of translation.

When reading and writing stories involving other cultures, we are faced with a culture gap—both between story and reader, and between translator and text. I hadn’t realized that I had no point of reference for elements in my novel translation that I had not experienced first-hand, either as a child or as an adult. Lacking the linguistic tools to play with, what lay before me seemed like a crevasse. And then, at the exchange, my fellow creators gave me the means to start twining the rope and looking for possible anchors on the other side.

Unlike picture books where imagery comes visually, in textual narratives, intermittent illustrations may prove able guides in some works, while others rely solely on the reader’s imagination to recreate the story world. Some stories may never truly manifest in only the words of a different language, but at our exchange, there were good suggestions of how to recreate a sufficient replica using other cues.

Another topic we discussed was dialogue. When Japanese gender inflections and verbal style combine with social norms to create consistent character voice, translators like me are often left floundering with the flatness of English speech. For instance, we work with only two English defaults for the many ways to say and you in Japanese. Add to that verbal styles in gendered speech, and we see the whole mesh needing to be re-coded. What is already there? Or can be read? How much should be explained?

Also, will kappa and seto go down as well in English as ramen and natto?

Well, if the Bard apparently completed three of his famous tragedies when the bubonic plague hit London in the early 17th century, then we can stay creative and connected in self-isolation today, especially with technology. But watch out for those gaps!

Mari Boyle’s post on the SCBWI Japan regional blog covers this Remote Creative Exchange from a writer’s perspective.

Nicky Harman and Avery Udagawa Discuss “Firstclaw” by Sachiko Kashiwaba

By Nicky Harman, London
On Translation Columnist, Asian Books Blog

NH: I’m delighted to be interviewing Avery Fischer Udagawa, because I have a huge admiration for translators who focus on young readers. I started by asking her about her latest translation piece in Words Without Borders, and why she wanted to translate it.

AFU: “Firstclaw” at Words Without Borders is my rendering of イチノツメと呼ばれた魔女 by Sachiko Kashiwaba, a fairy tale from her collection of linked tales, 王様に恋した魔女 (Kodansha, 2016). I encountered this story on precisely the morning of October 24, 2018, in the large Maruzen Marunouchi bookstore in Tokyo, where I had gone to spend time before a meeting with the author. Since we are all stuck at home these days needing vicarious outings, I’ll share that I savored this book over chiffon cake in Maruzen’s third floor café, glancing out as JR local trains and bullet trains pulled in and out of Tokyo Station. I even exchanged bows with a window washer who floated by in his rigging.

Hours later, Kashiwaba herself signed my book. That was a story scouting day for the ages!

“Firstclaw” struck me as a skillfully wrought, surprising tale of a reclusive witch, a resourceful princess, and a brave king. I found the ending (which I won’t spoil here) curiously joyful, and I chose to translate it out of readerly pleasure.

When I submitted my translation last year to Daniel Hahn, guest editor of WWB’s April 2020 issue, I also wondered if “Firstclaw” might contribute to discussions in publishing about authors writing outside their own cultural identities. Ms. Kashiwaba’s oeuvre of fantasy writing includes many works with distinctly Japanese characters—kappa spirits, yuki-onna, shape-shifting raccoon dogs, local gods—but she also writes witches, dragons, vampires, and in “Firstclaw,” a “blond sovereign.” She grew up reading western children’s literature in translation and counts Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Chronicles of Avonlea as influential in terms of form. Hahn, for his part, sees a “kinship” with Europe in “Firstclaw” and observes that “the webs of influence in children’s literature are dense and rich.”

Does it matter that “Firstclaw” comes from Japan? Readers may find this question stimulating, but I mostly just hope that the story cheers them up, as it does me.

With Sachiko Kashiwaba on October 24, 2018

NH: I’ll confess to having much less experience translating children’s literature than adult novels, so I’m intrigued by this question: do you think there is an essential difference between the two?

AFU: I don’t think there’s an essential difference at all.

The English-language publishing world categorizes literature as children’s or adult—and as middle grade, young adult, and so on within children’s—largely for marketing purposes and to help booksellers and librarians shelve books. This practice can help to ensure that young readers encounter books appropriate to their developmental level, which no one can argue with. It does, however, sometimes obscure the fact that literature is literature, and much of what sells as children’s literature in fact offers much to adults. The reverse is true, as well. Fiction like Ms. Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Louise Heal Kawai, works not only as adult fiction but also as MG and YA.

NH: When you interviewed my friend and translation colleague Helen Wang (who is a whizz at all things kidlit from Chinese), she said, about her translation of Jackal and Wolf by Shen Shixi: “Some of the fighting scenes are quite graphic and intense, but it was the psychological behaviour that I found more disturbing, especially where Flame tests a potential suitor.” Have you come across similar dilemmas in translating from Japanese and if so, how did you deal with them?

AFU: Yes, Japanese children’s books do sometimes include elements that might disturb young readers of English, due to culture gaps. For example, children of divorce in Japan often experience the trauma of never living with one parent again, which shows up in children’s books involving divorce. This reality may shock young overseas readers accustomed to traditions of joint custody. I have not dealt with this challenge personally.

Sachiko Kashiwaba’s novel 帰命寺横丁の夏, which I am pitching as Temple Alley Summer, includes a nine-year-old whose impoverished father sells her into servitude. While set in a fairy tale section of the book, this character’s plight has historical antecedents in pre-modern Japan, which might make it normal-ish fare for readers of the original. It could trouble some readers of the English, however. As the translator, I would never dream of changing this plot element, but in selecting this book to work on, it mattered to me that it goes on to show the child seeking freedom and agency, ultimately overcoming her past. I believe that English-language publishers will appreciate this aspect, too.

NH: What’s the nicest thing a young person has said to you about one of the books you translated.

AFU: “Mom, would you hurry up and translate the next chapter?” (I have two daughters, aged 8 and 12.)

NH: What kind of promotion do you find yourself doing for a finished and published novel? and what do you find is most effective when promoting a children’s book?

AFU: When promoting children’s books, it’s key to engage not only young readers, but also adult “gatekeepers” such as parents and educators, who are often the ones actually buying the books. With J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani—a historical novel set in Tokyo after the 1964 Olympics—I have done school visits to interact with students, talks for the general public, and presentations to teachers and librarians both on- and offline. In several cases, I have had the privilege of co-presenting with the author. Sharing with my Japan- and kidlit-focused colleagues has also been very helpful. I treasure the professional organizations SWET and SCBWI and conferences such as the Asian Festival of Children’s Content.

NH: I can see from your blogs and interviews that you champion Japanese literature for kids, and put a lot of effort into pitching the books you like and finding sources of funding. How do you balance your paid and your done-for-love work?

AFU: Wouldn’t I love balance! Translating J kidlit into E is my passion, but it is a true labor of love. Even the most decorated member of my field, Cathy Hirano—translator of Hans Christian Andersen Award (“little Nobel”) laureate Nahoko Uehashi, among others—cannot live on what her children’s work pays. (Cathy is also the translator of Marie Kondo’s decluttering books; she coined the English phrase “spark joy” for ときめく.Less than five percent of children’s books published in the US each year are translations (I believe the UK is similar), compared with 15 percent or more in Japan. There just isn’t enough demand for #worldkidlit in English. Yet.

Meanwhile, I work as native language coordinator at International School Bangkok, a job that I find meaningful in itself, and I have a family. Under Covid-19, this means I facilitate virtual school on weekdays and chip away at work on evenings and weekends. Translation has to take a backseat. I know from experience, however, that this tough patch will make the future chances to translate, promote, and scout books in cafés all the sweeter.

NH: When you have time, what your current projects?

AFU: I am pitching Temple Alley Summer, a middle grade novel that showcases Kashiwaba’s gift for writing fairy tales, Japan-inspired fantasy, and contemporary realism, all in 52,000 engrossing words. A third-grade teacher who read this manuscript emailed me, “I stayed up reading when I should have turned out the light and gone to sleep.” She hopes to add it to her classroom library when it comes out.

For now, that’ll keep me going!

Cross-posted from the Asian Books Blog with permission.

Japanese Children’s Publishers’ Foreign Rights Catalogs for Spring 2020

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Along with much else in the world, the 2020 Bologna Children’s Book Fair was recently cancelled. (An online fair will be held May 4–7.) We in the SCBWI Japan Translation Group know that the BCBF provides a valuable venue for Japanese publishers to showcase their works and market foreign rights, including to visitors who happen by their physical booths.

We would like to use this post to give interested parties access to the beautiful foreign rights catalogs prepared for BCBF 2020 by Japanese children’s book publishers, some of which Translation Group members had a hand in putting together.

Here are links to catalogs from major children’s publishers in Japan.

Also, the Japanese Board on Books for Young People has its curated Japanese Children’s Books 2020 list available to download. Recommendations from this year and prior years are also searchable online at Japanese Children’s Books—JBBY’s recommendations.

If you know of other catalogs we can add, please comment below or email the SCBWI Japan Translator Coordinator: japan-tc (at) scbwi.org

Fortunately, reading is one of the few activities not limited by social distancing, and we invite all agents and publishers to take the time to go through these offerings. As Tokyo finally gets the hang of teleworking, you may have trouble making phone calls to foreign rights departments, but emails are sure to be welcomed!

Stay safe!

Meet Master Editor Akiko Beppu

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

Akiko Beppu has edited many iconic works of Japanese children’s literature that are known in other languages, including English—books by Naoko Awa, Sachiko Kashiwaba, Yuichi Kimura, and 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award winner Nahoko Uehashi, among others. Recently retired from Kaisei-sha Publishing Company, where she had been editor for some 42 years, Beppu-san has also supported SCBWI Japan since its very first event.

Earlier this year, the regional team invited Beppu-san to a special lunch in Ginza. Our write-up of this gathering includes an introduction to her many works.

Ready to meet a master editor? Join the Thank You Lunch for Akiko Beppu over on the SCBWI Japan blog.

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.