February 4, 2017
Posted by Mari Boyle
As part of a double feature event, we had the opportunity to celebrate the recent and forthcoming work of some of our Japan SCBWI members. The books featured in the showcase were:
Ginny Tapley Takemori, Translator The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui (Pushkin Press, 2015)
Michael Currinder, Running Full Tilt (Charlesbridge, 2017)
Suzanne Kamata, The Mermaids of Lake Michigan (Wyatt-McKenzie Publishing, 2017)
Leza Lowitz, Up From the Sea (Crown Books, 2016)
Holly Thompson, Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth (Henry Holt, 2016)
Keiko Kasza, ゆうくんのくまパジャマ (Yuukun's Bear Pajamas) illustrated by Yasuhiko Nakatani (Kodansha, 2017)
Izumi Tanaka まめちゃんのぼうけん (Mame-chan’s Adventure) (Creative Media Publishing, 2017)
Seven members, authors, illustrators and one translator, presented their books, shared excerpts of their work, and revealed some of the ideas and creative processes that inspired them. It was fast and furious, 10 minutes per presentation, but it is surprising how much craft knowledge can be shared in these brief expositions. The range was impressive, from picture book to verse novel and YA fiction. As each author took their turn I was struck, as much by what connected their work, as what marked it separate. Place, time and culture featured strongly.
Suzanne Kamata commented on the importance of ‘place’ in a story. She cautioned us about using a specific location, as its appeal might be limited only to readers who live there. Ignoring her own advice however, her coming-of-age novel, The Mermaids of Lake Michigan, is set in her hometown of Grand Haven by Lake Michigan. The small town local attractions provided the perfect setting for the more mystical elements of the story, and her knowledge of the local area, people and events additionally help to create realism in a narrative that dips into magic.
Michael Currinder’s first book, Running Full Tilt, about a talented high-school distance runner and his complicated relationship with his autistic older sibling, is also set in the U.S. The story juxtaposes a humorous narrative with a sensitive issue. While this is a work of fiction, the novel is loosely based on Michael’s own experiences of growing up with his autistic brother. One of the ways he fictionalized the story was to place it in a contemporary timeframe. “It’s been a project,” he commented as he recalled the challenges of updating music references, fashion, technology and politically loaded language.
Time and place were specific in Leza Lowitz’s verse novel Up From the Sea. Set in Tohoku, Japan, during and after the 2011/ 03/11 tsunami, it tells the story of a mixed-race teenage boy living through the disaster. Having been in Tokyo when the quake struck, Leza confessed she was hesitant to write the book because she had not been directly affected by the tsunami. However, through volunteering in the disaster hit region, getting to know the area, the communities and listening to individual stories, Leza was finally convinced by a young boy who had lost his parents. He simply said, “Don’t forget about us.” Leza sought to keep her promise and decided that it was not a matter of “Do I have the right?” but more, “I really don’t have the right not to.” Writing the book was clearly an emotional challenge, as reflected in Leza’s moving talk.
Holly Thompson’s verse novel, Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth, also deals with strong emotional themes. Described in the Japan Times as, “A poetic tale of overcoming school bullies,” Holly drew on the experiences of her son, along with newspaper articles and other anecdotal stories, to unveil the pervasive bullying that often goes unchallenged in many Japanese schools. Time, place and cultural difference are integral to the story. To accompany the book, Holly wrote 30 notice poems written in the voice of various characters from the novel. (You can access them here.)
Picture books too can be place and time sensitive, as was apparent in Keiko Kasza’s bedtime story, ゆうくんのくまパジャマ (Yuukun's Bear Pajamas). Hovering between wakefulness and sleep, and played out in the margins of the real and imaginary world of childhood, Yuu-kun’s adventures with his bear-friends has been picked as one of the Calpis Picture Books, a scheme that distributes picture books to Japanese kindergartens. Interestingly, the publishers were hesitant about the opening scene in which Yuu-kun is left to go to sleep by himself. They did not believe this would happen in a Japanese household, and Keiko had to adjust the story to reflect a more Japanese cultural norm.
Time and place take on mythical qualities in Izumi Tanaka’s new work, まめちゃんのぼうけん (Mame-chan’s Adventure). What started out initially as a proposal for a children’s TV program blossomed into the quest-style story of two brothers seeking the sun-stone. Izumi based the characters on her cats, one confident and bold, the other shy and reluctant. Izumi shared her illustrations for the e-book with us, and as all good picture books do, they revealed as much about the characters’ relationship, as does the text.
In Ginny Tapley Takemori’s book placing the narrative in a specific time and place was a multi-layered task. In translating Tomiko Inui’s The Secret of the Blue Glass, much of it set during the Pacific War (World War II) in Japan, Ginny not only had to acquaint herself with this historical time period, but, as the original story was written in 1959, it was important that the translation of the Japanese text stayed true to the era it in which it was written. To achieve this Ginny happily read many of the books that had influenced Inui’s writing, such as Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, and The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. In doing so, Ginny placed herself into a linguistic time-style to match the Japanese narrative style of Inui.
Much more was covered in the Q and A session which followed. The authors discussed the challenges they faced, differences of writing styles, and negotiations with publishers over the all-important book cover.
Glad I was in the right place at the right time, and learned so much.