By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok
September is #WorldKidLit Month, a time to notice if global stories are reaching kids in the form of translations. My children enjoyed one such story, and met the translator, on a recent trip to Nagano.
Hart Larrabee has interpreted for the Japanese Olympic team; translated nonfiction about art, design and architecture; and translated Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki for the new book Haiku: Classic Japanese Short Poems. He lives in Obuse, a small town where Issa and the artist Hokusai both created famous works.
But my family visited Obuse to hit a bakery. That’s because a picture book Hart had translated, The Nurse and the Baker by Mika Ichii, got us hungry for Chelsea buns from Obuse Iwasaki, a shop where the buns are made using a recipe from a Canadian nurse.
In 1932, Canadian missionaries opened a tuberculosis sanatorium in Obuse. In 1935, a nurse named Lilias Powell became head of nursing there. She was known as a stickler for high standards.
Koyata Iwasaki was the fourth-generation head of Obuse Iwasaki, located in the center of town. His great-grandfather had founded the shop in the early 1860s. After World War II, Koyata-san delivered bread to the sanatorium and learned to make Chelsea buns from Miss Powell. He experimented repeatedly to meet her high standards. And a local specialty was born.
The Nurse and the Baker tells this story with a focus on Koyata-san, a fine baker who nonetheless quakes in his boots when summoned by the exacting Miss Powell. He tries (and fails) many times to make her recipe with local ingredients. When he succeeds, she is moved to tears because he has given her a taste of home.
Mika Ichii’s illustrations and story, in Hart’s translation, more than prepared my kids to appreciate the Chelsea buns at Obuse Iwasaki—still arrayed near a photo of Miss Powell, as described in the book. And it was a huge treat to meet the late Koyata-san’s wife, who still works in the store.
Yet the “delicious” part of this story to me as a parent, is that the picture book’s focused telling, joyful climax and crack English have caused my children to return, repeatedly, to a story about trying. They’ve also learned words like “tuberculosis,” “sacrificed” and “specialty,” seen how a business can show gratitude, and absorbed a slice of Japanese/Canadian history.
We owe you, Hart!
The Nurse and The Baker: The Story of Chelsea Buns in Obuse is a bilingual book published by local press Bunya and order-able from anywhere.