I harbored great resentment towards origami as a child. Essentially I was the kind of kid who’d harbor resentment against any trade, skill, or hobby in which I lacked basic essential skills. And for a kid who couldn’t so much as fold a paper airplane without detailed instructions, origami seemed like some kind of cruel joke. Here’s a piece a paper… foldity, foldity, foldity, foldity, voila! Instant paper monkey! Yet while I did not like the art itself, I would not have minded reading about origami had there been any picture books written about it. Maybe there were. Maybe my library shelves growing up were full of such stories, but if so they somehow eluded me. One book that hasn’t eluded me in the present day, however, is Nathaniel Lachenmeyer’s The Origami Master. Surprisingly funny and visually arresting this book is nothing so much as a small present from a small publisher. Like an origami creation itself, Lachenmeyer and artist Aki Sogabe have produced something small, meticulous, and ultimately charming.
Shima the Origami Master keeps to himself on the side of a tall Japanese mountain . His days are spent peacefully enough, folding origami papers into little creatures of his own making. One day a warbler sitting in a tree happens to see what Shima is doing and that night it folds the papers in much the same manner. This might be cute except for the fact that the warbler is a much better origami artist than the man. Its elephants are "simpler and more beautiful". And when Shima switches to dragons, the next night he finds a far superior version on his table that "looked like it was about to come to life and fly back to its lair." Increasingly frustrated Shima spies on his table the next night only to see the warbler improving on his origami spider design. Determined to get its secrets for himself, Shima traps the bird in a cage and leaves it lots of paper. However the warbler refuses to do anything but pine for its tree. And when the man falls asleep, he awakes to find the warbler gone and an origami key sitting by the cage. Fearful that he has frightened the bird away, Shima goes outside to find it making a nest in his tree and in gratitude he creates an origami nest, "for the friend he had made and almost lost." Instructions for making your own origami bird follow at the end of the book.
I love being surprised by a picture book. If an author can write a story in a mere 32 pages that goes in an unexpected direction then I am floored. And when the man woke to find that the bird escaped its cage by making an origami key, that’s when I tipped my hat. Artist Aki Sogabe was also clearly amused by the idea since the key in question is not a dark gray or blue but a bright and vibrant pink. A slightly brighter shade than the cherry blossoms where the warbler makes its home. Right off the bat I was also rather charmed by the cover and title of this book. Without reading the story, anyone in their right mind would take one glance at the illustration and words and think that the "Master" in question would have to be the old man folding a dragon on the table. You don’t even notice the small warbler nesting nearby, though it is clear that the bird is the better artist.
It was important to me that the warbler not be some kind of cartoony anthropomorphized creature haunting the man’s tree. Fortunately Aki Sogabe must have felt the same way since the pictures here are nothing if not realistic. The publication page says that the illustrations were created with "cut paper and watercolor", which I wouldn’t have necessarily have guessed. Sogabe weaves the cut paper elements seamlessly within the pictures. Sometimes an illustrator will utilize mixed media, and the foreign elements will veritably leap off the page (for good or for ill) and draw attention to themselves. When Sogabe chooses to use cut paper, however, you don’t even consciously notice. Is the pillow that the man kneels on made of cut paper? What about the little origami pages? Sogabe has made the conscious choice to create a smooth seamless transition between her watercolors and the outside elements, and it works like a charm.
Of course, I was a little surprised to hear that watercolor was Sogabe’s preferred painting choice since this book looks like nothing so much as a series of colored woodcuts. The thick lines of the man’s thatched home or the bold strokes that make up the warblers body; these all seem to indicate a woodcut or printmaking technique. At the same time, Sogabe’s vistas and landscapes where she sets her scenes are remarkably beautiful paintings. She gets the maximum amount of use out of distant hills and overlapping trees. Second and third readings of the book also reveal how elegantly she uses shadows. There is the shadow cast by the table when the man falls asleep and the bird is given its first opportunity to escape. There is the shadow of the man when he hides to find out who has been besting him at his own game. Each shadow highlights an important moment in the story but it’s not something you’d necessarily think to look for.
I am happy to say that The Origami Master joins my other favorite origami themed picture book Lissy’s Friends by Grace Lin. Together the two would make for a fabulous storytime or readaloud program (particularly if you wanted to finish the program by making some origami critters of your own with the kids). Deftly told in a lovely format, this book is a great example of a simple story paired with pitch perfect illustrations. A wonderful read and a wonderful find. A must for any collection.
On shelves now.
The book was a Junior Library Guild selection.
Nathaniel Lachenmeyer stopped by Chicken Spaghetti to mention what he was reading.