I like to keep my eye on picture book releases from smaller publishers, and I always like to see the ones that are making their way to American soil from overseas. Today, I’ve got two such books, quite unlike any others I’ve seen this year.
First up is Nankichi Niimi’s Gon, The Little Fox, illustrated by Genjirou Mita. This is the English retelling of a Japanese folktale, originally published in 1969; the publisher (Museyon) brought it to American shelves in May of this year. The author was known as the Hans Christian Andersen of Japan and died at the young age of 29 in 1943. The illustrator, three-time winner of the Sankei Children’s Book Award, lived from 1918 to 2000.
It’s the story of a fox named Gon who stirs up trouble, stealing from a man named Hyoju. When the fox realizes later that he’s stolen food meant for Hyoju’s sick mother, who then dies from lack of food, his conscience gets the better of him and he starts leaving gifts for the man. After the man’s friend convinces him one day that it’s God leaving the gifts, Hyoju sees Gon and shoots him with his gun. As Gon lays there dying, the man realizes it’s Gon who had been leaving him treats.
Or is Gon dying? It’s an open-ended tale, and readers may wonder whether or not the fox ever rallies. Either way, it’s a haunting ending, as the gun drops from Hyoju’s hand and “thin blue smoke [trails]…out of the muzzle.”
This isn’t the type of narrative to which American readers are accustomed. For one, it’s a lengthy text. Picture book manuscripts today seem to be shrinking in size, and this one is a commitment to read—though worth the time. There are 19 of Mita’s beautiful illustrations, but the words dominate. American readers also aren’t used to such open endings. It’s not that American picture books don’t ever engage in them (I’m lookin’ at you, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole), but it’s not often we see books that end this starkly. In fact, the Kirkus review notes that the “startling and violent ending may make it difficult to find an audience, but it is a valuable introduction to a non-Western storytelling aesthetic.” Yes. That pretty much covers it.
Tiptoe Tapirs, published by Holiday House, was originally published in 2013 in Korea as Tapir’s Soft Steps and has been translated for the First American Edition by Sera Lee. The book’s creator, Hanmin Kim—a writer, translator, graphic novelist, and author-illustrator—was born in Seoul and was evidently inspired to write and illustrate this story after an encounter with a tapir at a mud hole in Peru.
The story takes place “long ago” in a jungle that could be anywhere. “The jungle looks peaceful, doesn’t it?” the author asks the reader directly on the first page of the book.
But it is actually a noisy place, what with all the elephants and hornbills and apes making the kinds of noises that instantly make this book one of school librarians’ best 2015 story time reads. (You’ve got some “BOOM-BOOM!”s and “BAM-BAM!”s and “HOO-HAA!”s. See what I mean?) Tapir and Little Tapir are the only silent and gentle creatures of the forest, and they tread softly wherever they go. Delicate flowers and ants fear not. Both are safe when these two come tiptoeing by. Their cozy home is in a cozy tree, and life is good.
But at the Great Puddle one day, a leopard spots and attacks them. At the same moment, bullets ring out. A hunter is after the leopard, and the tapirs offer up some help in the form of instruction: they teach the leopard how to tiptoe away, and then everyone lives happily ever after in a quiet jungle where everyone learned to “move with a very soft step.”
And that, as it turns out, helps keep the hunter away altogether. He never returns.
The publisher calls this one an original pourquoi story, though I’m not sure which “why” the story is explaining, unless it’s simply Why This One Jungle Is Now So Quiet. But no matter. This is a captivating import. And what really stand out are the illustrations, rendered in watercolors, inks, and pens. With graceful lines and pleasing compositions on ample white space, Kim gives the book a distinctive and dramatic look. Particularly outstanding is the moment when the hunter shoots at the leopard—and all three creatures duck. Splattered ink dominates the top of the spread, but it includes three bone-white round shapes for three large bullets. “BANG! BANG! BANG!” are the only words on the page. (Needless to say, this story is timely for American readers, given the story of Cecil the lion that’s dominating the news lately.)
Two compelling stories from two intriguing Asian imports. Tiptoe to the library or bookstore to see if they’re on shelves near you. Happy reading.
GON, THE LITTLE FOX. Copyright © 1969 by Nankichi Niimi and Genjirou Mita. English edition published by Museyon, Inc., New York. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.