Back in late winter, I was meeting one of my kids in Seattle after work, so we could ride the train home together. The Kinokuniya bookstore is near the train station, so she popped in to browse while she waited for me. And while she was there, she spotted a book that she thought I would want, a book of poetry for children: Are You an Echo: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko.
She was right.
Misuzu Kaneko is the best known and most beloved writer of poetry for children in Japan. Her work has been translated into many other languages, but never, until now, into English.
And this book doesn’t include all of her work. I wish it did. But the team who created the book felt that they needed to introduce not just Kaneko, the poet, to English language readers, but Kaneko, the person. So the book is part anthology, and part biography.
And it’s a picture book, beautifully illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri. His work unifies the book into a coherent whole.
Imagine a book that collects some of the best works of Margaret Wise Brown with a biography that dealt honestly with her life, and you’ll have some idea of what you’re getting with this book. Kaneko’s father had died when she was young, and her mother ran the family bookstore after his death. Her mother believed in education, even for girls, so Kaneko was well educated for a woman of her time and place. She began to write and publish poetry for children.
Eventually, she married a man who worked at her mother’s bookstore. Her husband was unfaithful. She contracted a debilitating disease from him, and decided to divorce him. But, even though he had wronged her, Japanese law would give him custody of their child.
So she wrote him a letter; in that letter, she asked him to give their daughter to her mother. Then she killed herself. He honored her request, and their daughter was raised by Kaneko’s mother.
It’s a tough story, told briefly and simply. If you share it with your child, you’ll need to be prepared for the discussions it will raise.
Whether you share Kaneko’s biography with your child or not, you should share her poetry. Every poem in the anthology portion of the book is in English and in Japanese, so, if you know Japanese, you can read the originals. They are, according to the translator’s notes, full of literary allusions and word play that doesn’t come across in translation. Kaneko takes this richness and speaks it in a child’s voice, creating a contrast that, in Japanese, is quite magical.
If, like me, you don’t know Japanese, you might find yourself wishing for a volume that includes all 512 of her surviving poems, along with rich annotations that explained the literary allusions, poetic conventions, and everything else that a translation simply can’t capture.
Perhaps some day that volume will be published. For now, because Kaneko wrote poetry for children, the publishers have created a book that is designed to appeal to children. It includes brief notes from the author and illustrator in the back.
But even if you don’t know Japanese, these brief poems retain much of their magic even in translation. Kaneko, as an adult, could still see the world through a child’s eyes. Here are two selections from the book.
Mommy Who Walks on the Sea
Mommy, no! Don’t go there!
That’s the sea.
Look, here is the port
and this chair is a boat
that is about to leave.
Come get on!
Oh no, oh no, Mommy don’t!
Don’t walk on the sea,
you’ll drown! Mommy really,
don’t laugh, it’s not funny!
Hurry, hurry get on board the boat.
Oh, oh, now she’s gone.
But that’s okay.
My Mommy’s so great. She’s so great
she can walk on the sea!
Let’s not tell anyone.
In the corner of the garden this morning,
A flower shed a tear.
If word of this spreads
to the ears of the bee,
it’ll feel it’s done wrong
and go back to return the nectar.
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