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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko. Narrative and translation by David Jacobson, Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi. Illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri. Chin Music Press. 2016. $28.50 all ages

"Waves are children
laughing and holding hands.
Together, they come.

Waves are erasers
wiping away words
written on the sand."

I am so thankful to David Jacobson for making the arrangements necessary for me to pick up a copy of Are You An Echo? at McNally Robinson Books in Winnipeg. I have been remiss in getting this post done in an appropriate length of time. That has nothing to do with the book's impact on me. I have read it many times, and am astonished by the story it tells, the beauty of the poetry, and the path taken to get it to publication.

So today, on the 6th anniversary of the Tohoku tsunami, is perfect time to share it with you. I have never seen such a book. It is the picture book biography of a much loved Japanese children's poet, revered by her people and not well-known beyond Japan's borders. It is such a pleasure to post it today, as one of her poems had a tremendous impact on the Japanese following the devastation of the earthquake and the resulting chaos it brought to Japan's shores.

Here it is:


If I say, ""Let's play?"
you say, "Let's play!"

If I say, ""Stupid!"
you say, "Stupid!"

If I say, "I don't want to play anymore,"
you say, "I don't want to play anymore."

And then, after a while,
becoming lonely

I say, "Sorry."
You say, "Sorry."

Are you just an echo?
No, you are everyone."

It was included in a televised public service announcement meant to encourage those dealing with devastation and loss. Her poem gave people hope and brought comfort when it was so badly needed, and ensured that her children's poetry would never be forgotten. 

What a truly stunning collaboration! It began with David wanting to publish Misuzu's poetry. He had been able to read her work in Japanese, a gift from friends. In researching her work, he met Kaneko enthusiast Setsuo Yazaki, whose patience and persistence through a sixteen year search found her brother and pocket diaries that contained 512 poems, most of which had never been published. How was that possible?

It was felt that Setsuo's search should be included in the project. Voila, a picture book biography seemed the best way to share the young poet's life and her work, bringing her to the world beyond Japan. Her poetry needed to be an integral part of the book. Translators and an illustrator were invited to join the project and this gorgeous book is the result of a very special collaboration.

It is an honest book, told elegantly and with children in mind, despite the sadness of the illness and tragic marriage that led her to take her own life at 26. It is handled with care and compassion, and is an integral part of her full story. Ten poems are included within the text of the book, and 15 are added in back matter, written in both Japanese and English. Empathy and love of natural world are at the heart of the poems included. They read beautifully; a testament to the care, dedication and time taken to get the translations 'right':

"had to skillfully work our way through both languages, often producing several versions of a poem by discussing them on Skype and through extensive emails – Michiko from Japan, Sally from Canada – to arrive at the best possible translations in English.”

Toshikado Hajiri matches the tone and beauty of Misuzu's poetry throughout, and I often returned to her images to bring awareness of setting, time and the great love she had for her daughter. There is so much joy between the two, making her final decision even more poignant and understandable.

I do hope that, as so often happens when I read a picture book biography that concerns someone I know little about, this book will encourage an interest in many to learn more about this gentle, memorable young woman.


I wonder why
the rain that falls from black clouds
shines like silver.

I wonder why
the silkworm that eats green mulberry leaves
is so white.

I wonder why
the moonflower that no one tends
blooms on its own.

I wonder why
everyone I ask
about these things
laughs and says, "That's just how it is."


Snow on top
must feel chilly,
the cold moonlight piercing it.

Snow on the bottom
must feel burdened
by the hundreds who tread on it.

Snow in the middle
must feel lonely
with neither earth nor sky to look at."

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