Japanese was my first language even though I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I grew up reading all the classics in Japanese including Hans Christian Anderson stories, Heidi, and The Secret Garden. It wasn’t until the third grade that I started to explore books written in English outside of the school curriculum, but regardless of the language, books have always been my sustenance, my deep loves, my longtime companions.
I started collecting children’s books before the notion of having my own kids was even a remote possibility. I’m drawn to beautiful picture books, the kinds with minimal text that pack visual wallop. Then again, I love a good yarn and I’ve repeatedly pored over old copies of Grimm’s fairy tales with the sparse, black-and-white ink illustrations. Most of all, though, I thrill in expanding my viewpoint, learning about far-flung lands or unique customs or simply a different way of understanding people.
When my daughter was born (“I’m half-Japanese, half-Indiana, Mama,” she tells me), I wanted to fill her tiny lap with books of every color and stripe. I had visions of building a colossal children’s library in our small apartment, and had it not been for space constraints, I would have done it.
I can’t stop buying books. For the last eight years as my daughter has grown, I’ve gone through multiple cycles of acquiring and eliminating children’s books and am forever on the lookout for additions. The following ten books (in no particular order) have stood the test of time for me and/or my daughter, and these, I feel, are wonderful ways to introduce any child to the vast world and different perspectives in that singular way that only children’s books can.
Kamishibai Man by Allen Say – My husband’s grandmother sent a copy of this book for my daughter’s second birthday. Since the storyline is more involved than your average storybook, I waited until she was about four or five to read it to her. The book is in English, and follows a day in the life of a Kamishibai man. “Kamishibai” is the Japanese word for “paper theater,” and in olden days men would cycle around town with a portable theater mounted on their bikes. They would make the neighborhood rounds to entertain children with various folk tales. The Kamishibai Man would narrate as he changed out sheets of painted illustrations as the story progressed. The book is essentially a reflection on the passage of time and the value of traditions. Say’s watercolor illustrations are visually arresting, and I’ve spent many a happy moment studying the details (the landscapes, the quiet dinner of fish and rice, the array of street signs) that bring to life Japanese life present and past. Beautiful.
Frida by Jonah Winter / Illustrated by Ana Juan – Ana Juan is one of my favorite illustrators whose works are celebrations in acrylic paint, full of depth and vibrancy. In this stunningly rendered story about Frida Kahlo (full name Magdelena Carmen Frida Kahlo, which I didn’t know until I read this book), Winter and Juan highlight the key aspects in Kahlo’s life from childhood to her accident that eventually led to her artistic career. Rich with imagination and quirky surrealism, it’s a lovely ode to the great artist.
Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems. Now, I love all of Mo Willem’s books and the original Knuffle Bunny is quite possibly the best ever children’s book. But what was surprising and delightful about this third book in the series is that Trixie — owner of Knuffle Bunny — travels to Amsterdam to visit her Dutch grandparents (the first two books are set in New York). Knuffle Bunny, as usual, becomes lost, and as usual, the ending is sweet and wise. The blend of photography with hand-drawn illustrations transports the reader to the Netherlands and with his signature sharp sense of humor, Willems provides ample informative yet entertaining cultural references. All three books in the series are a must-read.
Around the World with Mouk: A Trail of Adventure by Mark Boutavant – Bustling with energy and chockful of global/regional factoids, this fun book tracks Mouk the bear’s adventure from Finland to Greece to Africa to India to China to Australia to Japan to Peru to where else? New York! The colorful illustrations are a feast for the eyes and multitudes of sly humorous moments can be found if you take the time to read all the little talk bubbles.
The Little Red Fish by Taeeun Yoo – This is a quiet, understated and slightly haunting book about a Korean boy whose grandfather is “a librarian in an old library in the middle of the forest”. Unexpected dreamy shenanigans ensue when the boy accompanies his grandfather to the library one day, and the delicate ink and watercolor illustrations awash in sepia tones impart a faraway, nostalgic atmosphere to the story. I especially love the bold, red fabric cover that contrasts with the desaturated interior.
The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence – I tore through this rollicking middle grade tale about the intrepid twelve-year-old P.K. Pinkerton, navigating through the treacherous Wild West in 1862. Cunning and hilarious, P.K. outsmarts a gang of desperados time and time again, and I was near tears from both mirth and sorrow. This may not be an obvious choice for books that fall into the category of diversity, but there’s a clever twist that makes you question the notions of identity and assumptions.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats – Originally published in the 1960s, this beloved book continues to reign as mandatory inclusion in any children’s library. The clean, simple collage style is right up my alley and the joy of the snowy day and all its as-yet-unexplored possibilities bursts forth. I daresay this is the kind of work all artists aspire to create: enduring, buoyant, universally meaningful and appealing.
The Peach Boy and Other Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories by Florence Sakade / Illustrated by Yoshisuke Kurosaki – I practically gasped when I saw this book at the local Asian bookstore. This slim volume contains all the stories I read as an itty bitty girl, but in English! The illustrations are so reminiscent of the ones I studied assiduously as a child, and though the translation feels a little bit off — at least compared to what I remember from my younger years — it’s still a wonderful set of short, punchy folktales that will intrigue children. I now have all the books in this series, but this one is my fave.
Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty – Rosie is a timid girl who likes to tinker and invent devices and contraptions. Her aspirations to become a great inventor remains a secret until the momentous visit from her great-great aunt Rose, she of the red-spotted-scarf-clad. The visit changes everything. Rosie dares to dream large, and this big-hearted story told in rhyme upholds a theme close to my heart: persevere. Plus it’s cool to read a book about a girl inventor. We need more of these.
Arabian Nights– Back in the day, I read this collection of adventures in both Japanese and in English, and I preferred the English version, which was darker, more mysterious and utterly magical. (I actually don’t mind Disney’s Aladdin, but the original tale is so much better). My mom probably bought a used copy from some garage sale, and I still remember the cracked spine and meticulously detailed illustrations. I, of course, imagined myself as Scheherazade, spinning tales of my own for dear life, using my wits and smarts and abundant creativity. I don’t know why, but I kept the copy in the bathroom; hence I spent a lot of time with the book. My childhood copy has long been given away, and I’ve spent years looking for the same version and the hunt continues…
Sanae Ishida is the author and illustrator of Little Kunoichi, The Ninja Girl. Publishers Weekly wrote about Sanae’s debut: “Capping a warm, funny, and encouraging story line about the value of hard work and dedication, Ishida includes an array of information in the endnotes, expanding on references in the text and art to sumo wrestling, ninja training, and other aspects of Japanese language and culture.” The Little Kunochi launch party is Sunday, May 10, 2015 from 4:00- 6:00 at Queen Anne Book Company.