The purpose of a picture book? Think carefully now. The answer’s not going to jump up and bite you on the bum. Does it exist primarily to instill a love of literature? A love of art? To teach children to read? Is it an artistic form in and of itself, separate entirely from its practical purposes? Is it made to please adults with children as a secondhand afterthought, or does it please all persons regardless of age? Such questions do not always come up after reading one of these 32-odd page creations. To be perfectly honest, I am rarely challenged when a read a Seuss, a Willems, or a Scarry (sorry, y’all). And then I’ll pick up something that doesn’t follow conventional rules or patterns. Maurice Sendak will have such an effect on my brain. So too, but for entirely different reasons, will Ed Young. No one questions his talent, but not everyone likes his style, in spite of the fact that that very style changes from book to book. He might be downright conventional in My Mei Mei then break out the crazy juice for Wabi Sabi. His tales can be as straightforward as Caldecott winner Lon Po Po or as downright brain twistingly loopy as Beyond the Great Mountains. With Young you never know what you’re going to get next. And next, in this particular case, is Tsunami! by Kimiko Kajikawa. A straightforward story with pictures that are anything but.
When the rice harvest festival is nigh the villagers all gather on the beach at the foot of a mountain to celebrate. Everyone, that is, except for Ojisan and his grandson. The wealthiest man in the village, Ojisan lives simply and humbly on the top of the mountain with his beautiful fields of rice. On the day of the festival, however, something doesn’t feel right to him. An earthquake occurs, but though he’s felt many before this one seems different. And when he looks at the sea he realizes to his horror that the sea is running away from the land. A tsunami is coming, and all those little people down below will be killed if he doesn’t do something. So by setting fire to his precious rice fields, Ojisan lures the villagers up the mountain just in time to escape the vicious, inhuman disaster that is about to occur.
Strange but true fact: After a devastating tsunami wrecks havoc somewhere in the world I will often find several parents asking me for picture books about tsunamis for their children. I’m not entirely certain what impulse is at work here. Scary thing happens ipso facto I shall find a book that will make it not as scary? It doesn’t really matter what the thought process is anyway since we don’t really have any tsunami picture books in my collection. Oh we have hurricane books out the wazoo, sure. Hurricane books are a dime a dozen. But just try to locate a picture book about gigantic waves that crush villages and you are out of luck (ditto on tornadoes, oddly). I can only assume that until now there has been a vague sense in the publishing community that the public is not keen on huge scary natural disasters rendered equally huge and scary on the picture book page. Something must have convinced Philomel that the market was out there. I just hope the kids who live in coastal areas are clear on what they’re getting themselves into when they read this.
Because to be perfectly frank, Ed Young’s art isn’t pulling any punches with this puppy. The cover alone should be enough to convince you of that. Let’s just admire that cover image for a second, shall we? The mixed media really suits it. Mixed media’s such a weird form of art. It all boils down to some artist ripping apart some material and then sticking it onto a flat surface so that it looks like something else entirely. The difficulty in doing this is in making the image look like a three dimensional scene, entirely apart from the three dimensional aspects of the original material itself. No small feat. But for a book about a tsunami, the pairing of mixed media and gigantic destructive waves is ingenious. Little ripped pieces of paper become inanimate victims of a natural disaster. The dwarfing affect is ideal, as is the fact that the rips, snares, and tears all add to the violence of the ocean’s wave. On the cover the crest of the tsunami is constructed out of what looks like the thinnest overlaying of white tissue fibers. You can practically feel the suck of the tide. Brilliant.
Inside the book it’s a whole other ballgame. Some images are self-explanatory and easy to understand. When Ojisan sets fire to his rice fields there is no misunderstanding as to what he is doing (to say nothing of the look of confused anguish on his grandson’s face). Other pictures take more work. Ojisan looking down the mountain at the celebration below shows the villagers as no larger than the tiniest squares of confetti. It takes a minute to decipher but it’s still understandable. Far more difficult is the tsunami’s effect itself. When the sea returns “to its ancient bed” we’ve a confusing shot of water, sky, mountain, and villagers. It takes some time to realize which end is up. That’s the difficulty with this book. Young doesn’t feel hampered in by up or down or left or right. Images are meant to be viewed on their side, looking down a path, or viewed from below up up up. Impatient parents will twist and turn this book, deciding in the end that it isn’t worth their time. Smart ones will turn it into a game with their kids, asking them to interpret the more difficult images on their own. I suspect that the adult who goes with the latter plan might learn a little something about the images each time this happens. It’s worth a shot anyway.
It’s a little unfair that I’ve spent this much time talking about the art in this book and so little time discussing the writing. That’s the price any author pays when they’re paired with a Caldecott medalist, I guess. Now I’ve heard a tale or two about the creation of this book, and whether or not this story is true is probably up for question. The way I hear it, Kajikawa submitting this story years ago to Penguin. And Young considered it for quite some time, but couldn’t quite figure out how to illustrate it. Then a real tsunami, a big tsunami, hit another part of the world and the floodgates (so to speak) opened. He had his style. But it’s Kajikawa’s words that make this as accessible a story as it is. In fact, I found it a real pity that the design of the book had relegated her words to a black bar at the bottom of the page. This tale is precise and to the point. It plays up the natural tension, from Ojisan’s foreshadowing “Something does not feel right” to his frantic attempts to lure the villagers away from their own imminent demise. And the fact that it has something to say about sacrifice and wealth? Doesn’t hurt matters any.
Still deciding whether or not to read or purchase it? Take a look at the only wordless two-page spread in the book. After all the villagers have hurried up the mountain to put out the flaming fields they ask Ojisan why they are there. In answer he merely turns to the sea and says, “Kita!” The next two-page spread is absolutely terrifying. A wave, pure black until its crest, towers above the land. The purple sky above is almost entirely hidden in the midst of the oncoming spray and sea. It is the end of the world as we know it. Nature at its darkest. And depending on your child it will inspire both their dreams and their nightmares. You need to figure out exactly how much of either you feel comfortable informing. Of course, it’s certainly not the most kid-friendly (heck, user-friendly) of Young’s titles. Too artistic? Maybe a little. But it also happens to be a great story and a visual entrancer. If it’s man versus nature you seek, look no further than Tsunami! Like nothing else out there I can name.
On shelves February 5th.
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