Much like its protagonist, this novel is endearing, sincere and slightly gawky. American Tobias Blackwood has come to Japan...



Johnston’s debut novel is travel narrative, fantasy and coming-of-age saga woven with magic, nobility of spirit and idealized—almost courtly—love.

Much like its protagonist, this novel is endearing, sincere and slightly gawky. American Tobias Blackwood has come to Japan with his new friend John Tell to teach English as part of the Society of English Learners. His adventure gets off to a rocky start, however, when he finds himself halfway up a mountain, bloody and without his glasses, victim of his own clumsiness. His mishaps, however, do have the net positive result of attracting the attention of a mysterious woman named Matsuri. She becomes a friend and helps Tobias as he faces challenges both natural (teaching at a new school in a new country) and supernatural (fending off hungry demons and dealing with drunken tanuki: “They look like raccoons, but they resemble a badger or wild dog more than a raccoon—kind of cute but really shifty”). Tobias’ biggest challenge, though, is neither demon, tanuki nor kitsune; it’s his feelings for Michiko Yamasaki, his translator and classroom aide. Luckily, Tobias has his friends—and the kind support of his wise hosts, Jomei and Aoki Yoshida—to help him navigate all the unexpected experiences Japan has to offer him. In fact, the character relationships are one of the greatest strengths of this story, the other being the clear love of Japan and the attention to cultural detail woven throughout. Many lines of dialogue are even written in Romanized Japanese—with footnotes. Unfortunately, this can distract from the flow of the story, as readers have to refer to the bottoms of the pages, often several times on a single page, to follow the narrative. The dialogue also has a heightened, old-fashioned feel, which can sometimes read as stilted: “Enough talk of work. Tobias-san, would you like to start us off on the karaoke?” Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop characters from being engaging. Tobias’ adventures are fairly straightforward, although the way they tend to alternate between real-world and supernatural problems can make the narrative feel a bit like a car stuck between two gears.

Pub Date: April 12, 2012

ISBN: 978-1499359688

Page Count: 184

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2014

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The seemingly ageless Seeger brings back his renowned giant for another go in a tuneful tale that, like the art, is a bit sketchy, but chockful of worthy messages. Faced with yearly floods and droughts since they’ve cut down all their trees, the townsfolk decide to build a dam—but the project is stymied by a boulder that is too huge to move. Call on Abiyoyo, suggests the granddaughter of the man with the magic wand, then just “Zoop Zoop” him away again. But the rock that Abiyoyo obligingly flings aside smashes the wand. How to avoid Abiyoyo’s destruction now? Sing the monster to sleep, then make it a peaceful, tree-planting member of the community, of course. Seeger sums it up in a postscript: “every community must learn to manage its giants.” Hays, who illustrated the original (1986), creates colorful, if unfinished-looking, scenes featuring a notably multicultural human cast and a towering Cubist fantasy of a giant. The song, based on a Xhosa lullaby, still has that hard-to-resist sing-along potential, and the themes of waging peace, collective action, and the benefits of sound ecological practices are presented in ways that children will both appreciate and enjoy. (Picture book. 5-9)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-689-83271-0

Page Count: 40

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2001

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The rare immigrant chronicle that is as long on hope as it is on heartbreak.


A 15-year-old girl in Colombia, doing time in a remote detention center, orchestrates a jail break and tries to get home.

"People say drugs and alcohol are the greatest and most persuasive narcotics—the elements most likely to ruin a life. They're wrong. It's love." As the U.S. recovers from the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, from the misery of separations on the border, from both the idea and the reality of a wall around the United States, Engel's vital story of a divided Colombian family is a book we need to read. Weaving Andean myth and natural symbolism into her narrative—condors signify mating for life, jaguars revenge; the embattled Colombians are "a singed species of birds without feathers who can still fly"; children born in one country and raised in another are "repotted flowers, creatures forced to live in the wrong habitat"—she follows Talia, the youngest child, on a complex journey. Having committed a violent crime not long before she was scheduled to leave her father in Bogotá to join her mother and siblings in New Jersey, she winds up in a horrible Catholic juvie from which she must escape in order to make her plane. Hence the book's wonderful first sentence: "It was her idea to tie up the nun." Talia's cross-country journey is interwoven with the story of her parents' early romance, their migration to the United States, her father's deportation, her grandmother's death, the struggle to reunite. In the latter third of the book, surprising narrative shifts are made to include the voices of Talia's siblings, raised in the U.S. This provides interesting new perspectives, but it is a little awkward to break the fourth wall so late in the book. Attention, TV and movie people: This story is made for the screen.

The rare immigrant chronicle that is as long on hope as it is on heartbreak.

Pub Date: today

ISBN: 978-1-982159-46-7

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Avid Reader Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2021

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Unhei has just left her Korean homeland and come to America with her parents. As she rides the school bus toward her first day of school, she remembers the farewell at the airport in Korea and examines the treasured gift her grandmother gave her: a small red pouch containing a wooden block on which Unhei’s name is carved. Unhei is ashamed when the children on the bus find her name difficult to pronounce and ridicule it. Lesson learned, she declines to tell her name to anyone else and instead offers, “Um, I haven’t picked one yet. But I’ll let you know next week.” Her classmates write suggested names on slips of paper and place them in a jar. One student, Joey, takes a particular liking to Unhei and sees the beauty in her special stamp. When the day arrives for Unhei to announce her chosen name, she discovers how much Joey has helped. Choi (Earthquake, see below, etc.) draws from her own experience, interweaving several issues into this touching account and delicately addressing the challenges of assimilation. The paintings are done in creamy, earth-tone oils and augment the story nicely. (Picture book. 4-8)

Pub Date: July 10, 2001

ISBN: 0-375-80613-4

Page Count: 32

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2001

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