CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 40. . . .June 17, 2016
It is rare to find a children’s book that’s meticulously researched, genre-bending, a multi-country collaboration, beautifully illustrated, and replete with poignant poetry. Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko is just that rare book. The poetry was written by Misuzu Kaneko, a famous early twentieth-century Japanese children’s poet whose work is part of every Japanese child’s education, but it has been absent from English-language children’s literature. Sally Ito (Canada) and Michiko Tsuboi (Japan) translated the poetry, while David Jacobson (United States) created the book’s narrative frame which focuses on Kaneko’s biography. The whole package is lifted to great heights with illustrations by Toshikado Hajiri (Japan). This unique contribution to multicultural children’s literature in general, and children’s poetry in particular, is suitable for young readers aged eight through twelve.
Are You an Echo? begins with a story, the story of Kaneko’s life seen through the eyes of a scholar eager to learn more about the poet behind some of Japan’s most beloved children’s poetry. With a narrative frame that fans of Hana’s Suitcase will appreciate, Are You an Echo? reveals the mystery, heartache, and triumph of Kaneko’s long-forgotten life. The narrative is particularly admirable for its refusal to shy away from the more traumatic, controversial aspects of her life—such as her suicide. Its rendering of her experiences is gentle, empathetic, thought-provoking, and boasts impressive research at its foundation (contributors visited Japan as part of their generative process).
This biographical material is bookended by contextual notes from the author and translator; these provide useful insights for North American readers unfamiliar with Japanese culture of the period. While such peritextual elements are often derided as didactic, in this case they are necessary, welcome, and elegantly handled. They enrich the reading experience.
The third section of Are You an Echo?, Kaneko’s poetry, follows in the manner of dessert concluding a delicious meal. Better still, the English translations and original Japanese poems are both included, positioned on facing pages. The poems, themselves, boast the best children’s poetry has to offer: profundity, simplicity, strength, beautiful language, and thought-provoking examinations of familiar childhood experiences. Contemporary North American children’s poets have a great deal to learn from Kaneko’s virtuosic oeuvre.
Throughout the whole, Toshikado Hajiri’s luminescent illustrations bring Kaneko’s world vividly to life. His work is based on actual locations integral to Kaneko’s life and draws upon Japanese art of the period. Refreshingly, Hajiri avoids the trap of relying on the overly bright colours often associated with children’s book illustrations, instead including a varied palette that shifts throughout the entire text to reflect the tone of each poem or narrative event.
Not since Hana’s Suitcase has such an exciting contribution to children’s literature emerged. Are You an Echo? has something for every reader: a compelling story and beautiful poems for children, factual accuracy and rich content for teachers and librarians, a respectful look at one woman poet’s experiences for feminists, and a glimpse into another time and place for parents and educators committed to multiculturalism, a fascinating genre mash-up for scholars, and a just-plain-gorgeous-in-the-hand book for everybody. Are You an Echo? will enrich the lives of every reader.
Michelle Superle is an Assistant Professor at the University of the Fraser Valley where she teaches children’s literature and creative writing courses. She has served twice as a judge for the TD Award for Canadian Children’s Literature and is the author of Black Dog, Dream Dog and Contemporary, English-language Indian Children’s Literature (Routledge, 2011).
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