Two Books for Children

Written in February of 2000, in Foster City, California. Not previously published. For my own appreciation of Issa, in which I begin by quoting Matthew Gollub (author of the second book of the two reviewed here), see also For the Love of Issa.

 

Haiku Picturebook for Children by Keisuke Nishimoto; illustrations by Kozo Shimizu. Heian International, 1999, 8½ by 10½ inches, 32 pages, hardback. $13.95.
 

Keisuke Nishimoto’s Haiku Picturebook for Children begins with a laudatory goal, “to introduce children to the world of the Japanese poem known as haiku.” The brief foreword defines haiku as following a 5-7-5 syllable pattern in Japanese, having the capability of expressing moods and feelings and of capturing the wonder of the seasons, and acting as “a springboard that propels the reader into an ever-widening series of thoughts and ideas.” The book presents fifteen classic Japanese haiku from the last four centuries, with three poems each by Bashō, Buson, and Issa, one each by Ransetsu, Chiyo jo, Shiki, and Kyoshi, and two by Takashi (and here I note that it is gratifying to see representation from the twentieth century in these last two poets). The illustrations are vibrant and effective, and I particularly enjoy the snowman drawn with coal eyes glancing up wondrously at the stars above. Each poem appears with the hiragana and romaji, a free-form English translation, and a brief prose “restatement” or explanation of the poem.

        The “restatement” of each poem is one of the first clues that the book is flawed, suggesting that the compiler or translator does not trust child readers—despite their agile imaginations and natural sensory sensitivity—to appreciate the poems. The font used is, to my mind, poorly designed, as some letters are very wide and others too narrow, out of proportion to what one would anticipate. For example, while one expects “i” and “l” each to be narrower than “u,” one does not expect all three of the first three letters of the word “illustration” to be narrower together than the “u” that follows them. Irregular letterspacing and hyphenation also detract from the book. In addition, the point size is too big for the page width to accommodate the length of the lines in all poems. As a result, a couple of the haiku are presented in four lines with awkward line breaks. For example, the famous Chiyo jo poem about morning-glories at the well appears with “glory” wrapped down onto a line by itself:

 

The bucket for the well

Has been captured by the morning

glory . . .

     I’ll go borrow water

 

This line wrapping produces an awkward misreading of the second line that a superior design or better font choice could have prevented.

        Many of the translations are also long (the longest is twenty-three syllables). Two thirds of the poems are seventeen syllables or longer, sometimes needlessly. For example, why say “The bucket for the well” in the preceding poem when “The well bucket” will do? And why the passive voice in the preceding poem when the active voice of “morning glory— / the well-bucket entangled / I ask for water” (translation by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi in Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master; Tuttle, 1998) is much shorter and more engaging? However wordy they may be, the translations are at least free-form and largely free of artificial line breaks and other contrivances often made just for the sake of the 5-7-5 straightjacket.

        One of the book’s more subtle flaws, however, occurs in an illustration that accompanies Buson’s “A sea of yellow flowers . . . / In the west, the setting sun / From the east, here comes the moon!” The three-quarter moon in the illustration does not line up correctly with the sun that appears in the same illustration. Because the moon reflects light from the sun, the dark part of a less-than-full moon should never face towards the sun as it does in this book’s illustration.

        The book’s most glaring flaw may be in attributing a famous Issa poem to Matsumoto Takashi: “Winter snow has melted . . . / Everywhere in the village / Children’s voices!” For comparison, here is Issa’s poem in versions by R. H. Blyth, Harold G. Henderson, and then Robert Hass, each of which I find superior:

 

       The snow having melted,

The village

       Is full of children.                                      [Blyth, Spring, page 123]

 

Snow melts,

       and the village is overflowing—

              with children.                                      [Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku, page 138]

 

       The snow is melting

and the village is flooded

       with children.                                             [Hass, The Essential Haiku, page 153]

 

The romaji is identical for the Nishimoto, Blyth, and Henderson versions (Hass’s book does not provide romaji for this poem), yet the book attributes the poem to Takashi. So what is one to make of these problems? I contacted the publisher and they acknowledged that they knew of the illustration error but could not contractually alter the image before publication; they did not know of the attribution error but indicated that they would look into it and make corrections as necessary. [As of 2009, the book continues to be sold without a correction, and this was still the case when checked again in January of 2012.]

        Although it is laudable for a book to present classic Japanese haiku with pleasing colour illustrations so that children might begin to appreciate the art of haiku poetry, it is a shame that this particular attempt is blemished—especially when the blemishes might not be observable to the casual reader or uninformed parent. Other books are more reliable, and teachers and parents would be best advised to seek out those books (Grass Sandals: The Travels of Bashō by Dawnine Spivak comes immediately to mind as one recent example). Yet they should also be cautious because books of haiku by mainstream publishers have all too often fallen short of the mark, succumbing to popular misunderstandings of haiku most particularly. We expect publishers to reach high standards when presenting translations for ourselves. Why should we expect any less for our children?
 
Compared to Haiku Picturebook for Children, the following book by Matthew Gollub, Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs!, is much easier to recommend.

 

~        ~       ~

 

Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa. Story and translations by Matthew Gollub; illustrations by Kazuko G. Stone. Lee & Low Books, 1998, 8½ by 10½ inches, 40 pages, hardback. $16.95.
 

Matthew Gollub’s Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs! is easy to recommend. Indeed, this children’s book has so much going for it, I recommend it highly—for both children and adults. Cool Melons tells the story of Issa’s life in straightforward details—that his mother died when he was barely more than an infant, that his stepmother despised him, that he was sent away from home at age fourteen, and that despite these challenges he became one of Japan’s foremost and best-loved poets, writing more 20,000 haiku before he died. Yet the details are not dramatized or made maudlin. For example, the death of Issa’s mother is presented simply as follows: “When Issa was three, his mother passed away. His grandmother took care of him every day. But often Issa played alone in the woods. He watched for birds and listened for insects. And for the rest of his life, he considered them his friends.” But more than simply telling carefully chosen facts of the poet’s life, which in this case convey his emotion of loneliness, the book presents thirty-three free-form translations along with their hiragana in graceful, cursive calligraphy by Keiko Smith, as well as varied and entertaining illustrations by Kazuko G. Stone.

        The poems are equally well chosen and, along with the illustrations, are the book’s main feature. Although not always in chronological order (as the informative author’s note explains), the poems are paired with the brief prose descriptions of Issa’s life to capture specific periods in the narrative. The combination of prose and poem often creates haibun-like leaps or connections that deepen the story. For example, while Issa was still living at home and being mistreated by his stepmother, we read that “[Issa’s] schoolmaster noticed that he was unhappy and encouraged Issa to write haiku. ‘With haiku,’ he said, ‘you can show what you are feeling inside.’” The following poem is then presented:

 

A silent toad—

      the face of one

      bursting with much to say.

 

In this setting, the poem bursts with the interpretation that Issa himself, though perhaps silent about his oppression, has so much to say—and says it, of course, through haiku. In a more chronological pairing, after the prose passage quoted earlier about Issa playing in the woods, the following translation appears:

 

Motherless sparrow,

      come play

      with me.

 

Issa wrote this poem when he was just six years old, three years after his own mother had died. Thus we are shown both the reality of the poet’s life and the influences that led to his inimitable poetic style.

        Issa’s biography alone is one of great interest. Though the story is almost of a fairytale quality, surely many children in modern America will find much to relate to in the poet’s life, with its tale of an evil stepmother, confusion in a big city, longing for home, and, when he is an adult, the deaths of his own children and even his wife Kiku. The book does not minimize these hardships, and thus the child reader is respected and challenged to deal with them emotionally.

       The translations are equally admirable, revering such haiku characteristics as juxtaposition and the use of season words. Not all of Issa’s best-known poems are present, but instead we are given fresh choices, and lesser-known poems appear in a narrative context that serves to energize and enlarge them. After we are told, for example, that Issa likened his beloved wife Kiku to a dove, we read the following:

 

Spring rain—

      The dove tells the owl

      to fix his worried face.

 

        Kazuko Stone’s illustrations are pleasing and varied, ranging from the shadow of a cat on a shoji screen at the beginning (“Plum tree in bloom— / a cat’s silhouette / upon the paper screen.”) to a silhouette of a goose against a sunset over mountains at the end (“O wild goose, / how young were you / when you set out alone?”). In between we find a kitten trapping a bright red leaf on the ground, red hoods on Buddha statues at New Year’s, and a firefly glowing in the wrinkled palm of the old poet’s hand. The illustration of monkeys in a hot spring (“Mother, father and child monkey, / also take soothing baths— / spring breeze.”) seems visually derivative of (or allusive to?) a famous National Geographic photograph, but is still engaging. My favorite images are the ones depicting snow, such as one showing three children catching snowflakes in their mouths and another of a motionless horse almost lost in the dimness of quietly falling snow. More important, the images are culturally informative about Japan, showing paper lanterns, incense, bamboo, torii (temple gates), geta (wooden sandals), and children in the traditional dress of Issa’s time.

        Adding further value to this book’s rich combination of narrative, translations, calligraphy, and illustration are a few pages at the end giving background information on the poems and the book’s creation (including a photograph of a statue of Issa, presumably in his hometown of Kashiwabara). Also noteworthy is an overview of haiku poetry—a description compact and useful enough to teach any child or adult the essential characteristics of the genre. Here we are told that “haiku describe a single moment in nature, something that the poet observes or discovers,” and that “it’s up to the reader to imagine the details and to make the picture complete.” The overview also emphasizes various haiku techniques. The first of these is juxtaposition (“Often, haiku describe two events side by side”) about which we are told that “it’s up to the reader to imagine how or if the two things are related.” A second technique is the use of season words—not just the name of a season but “a word or phrase to suggest the season indirectly.” Reference is also made to the internationalization of haiku and that “Haiku societies have sprouted up like bamboo shoots, and many new forms of haiku have evolved, with themes of humor, satire, romance, and modern life, replacing the traditional focus on nature.” Unlike too many haiku books for children, Cool Melons is obviously well-informed and thoroughly researched.

        In all, Matthew Gollub’s book deserves special commendation for its well-rounded presentation of haiku. In the so-called information age where misinformation about haiku continues to infect online and printed resources, it is refreshing to see a multifaceted book such as Cool Melons where haiku—and Issa’s life and poetry in particular—is presented to children accurately and energetically. I also commend Lee & Low Books for its conscientious emphasis on multicultural literature for children. If you have children in your care, read them Cool Melons and celebrate with Matthew Gollub and Issa himself in the magic of turning melons into frogs.

 

Cool melons—

      turn to frogs!

      If people should come near.