Exploring a Picture Book on Momofuku Ando, Inventor of Instant Ramen

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

Translators of Japanese children’s literature often find they have much to learn from authors and illustrators of Japan-related books—as Andrew Wong learned at an event on instant noodles.

Earlier this month, SCBWI Japan invited author Andrea Wang and illustrator Kana Urbanowicz to talk about the making of the picture book Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando. We were treated to an intriguing manifold back story, if you like, about persistence and how translation was very much integral to this story of a Japanese invention, which continues to evolve and fill hungry stomachs across the world, even in space!

Counterclockwise from above: Andrea Wang, Kana Urbanowicz, Mateus Urbanowicz

Andrea started the online session by mentioning how her background in environmental science and educational publications led to an interest in biographies and how her curiosity about who had invented instant ramen eventually led to the creation of the book. For Magic Ramen, she wanted to highlight the scientific approach that Ando, who had no culinary training, took to inventing instant ramen from scratch. However, instead of making it into something overly didactic, Andrea intended for the story to show, not tell, readers the scientific method at work.

But before all of that fell into place, she had struggled to find an emotional core for the story in the academic research on Taiwan-born Ando. Things changed when she received a pleasant surprise in the mail from someone at Nissin—an English copy of Ando’s autobiography. Andrea had had no luck looking for a retail copy of this English publication, because it had been distributed only internally at the company. It was in this translation that she found what the story needed—Ando had wanted to create a quick, warm, nutritious meal for hungry people after seeing the long ramen queue in a black market on a cold night in post-war Osaka.

Image of post-war ramen queue by Kana Urbanowicz

Having found the heart of Ando’s ramen story, Andrea paced Ando’s struggle to show his perseverance and scientific approach to making noodles. When Ando finally created instant ramen, the sakura were in full bloom, a scene that was also described in the autobiography. If you watch Andrea’s read aloud video, you will realize that the story goes on to show Ando selling his product and filling the stomachs of children, adults, and even royalty. With the manuscript ready, of course, more persistence was needed to find a publisher ready to take on a story behind one of the world’s best-selling inventions. While authors do not normally have much say in the choice of illustrator, Andrea specifically wanted a Japanese illustrator for this project.

After the manuscript was acquired by Little Bee Books, it was left to illustrator Kana Urbanowicz to tell the story in pictures. The Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in Yokohama and a copy of the Japanese version of Ando’s autobiography provided visual references for Kana regarding the Osaka black market and Ando’s family. As is often the case in U.S. publishing, the illustrator had little to no direct communication with the author about the manuscript. In fact, this SCBWI Japan event was the first time Andrea and Kana spoke to one another!

Some participants in the Magic Ramen event

For Magic Ramen, both the author and the illustrator shared a valuable resource—Ando’s autobiography—which seemed to act as a mental bridge between them. On the few occasions when they did communicate through the publisher, for instance when Kana asked for a visual reference of Ando and the illustrator note on the sakura scene, it was not surprising that both referred back to the autobiography!

In terms of design and visual storytelling technique, multiple diagonal panels were employed to give a sense of the passing of time and progress in Ando’s trial-and-error process, while the front and back inside covers are another demonstration of fun and wit. And so after about five years, not uncommon for non-fiction picture books, Magic Ramen hit the bookstores.

At this event, illustrators would have noted that language and accessibility played a significant part in helping Little Bee Books find Kana, whose English website and loop animation of a boy deliciously devouring ramen were huge factors in her favor. (We also learned that she got some help from her husband Mateus Urbanowicz, who is an illustrator too.) Translators would have noted that they might one day find themselves in a similar situation to their fellow creative professionals—long waits between editorial feedback and (sometimes) little to no contact with the original author.

This session provided a precious inside look at the motivations and choices made in the creation of Magic Ramen, particularly the story’s focus, the pacing and portrayal of Ando’s scientific process, and the visual cues in the illustrations. Since translators do not normally work with agents, I was encouraged by how Andrea’s individual persistence and perseverance had eventually led to such a heart-warmingly satisfying serving of the science behind the invention of instant ramen.

For a second helping of reflection on this event, tuck into Noodling about Noodles by SCBWI Japan author member Mari Boyle.

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