If you’ll pardon a moment of insufferable sincerity, today’s column is a bit of a love letter to the work of Komako Sakai, one of Japan’s leading illustrators and one of my favorite artists. She has two new illustrated titles out this Spring, and I think it’s a cause for celebration.
Pictured here is a self-portrait she sent me in 2012 for an interview with her at my site. I love this – that she sent me a simple drawing instead of some hyper-posed photo of herself. In that same interview, I quoted David Barringer at the New York Times, who once wrote about her 2009 title, The Snow Day:
“The art in The Snow Day is unpretty and mesmerizing. This world is dark, heavy, unsentimental and thick with…the bittersweet solitude of snow.”
That’s worth repeating here. I love the way he puts it, and I’d say this lack of sentimentality is a hallmark of her work. (Her work has always reminded me in this way of the work of Marie Hall Ets, another favorite.) Sakai lays out her stories, ones that capture the lives of very young children, with a kind of raw honesty and an emotional resonance. They are domestic dramas of the highest sort for young children; Emily’s Balloon (2006) is a prime example of this. And if her books are any indication, she knows toddlers and preschoolers, and the rhythms of their play, very well. Her artwork—at times grainy, at times soft and muted, and at times featuring vigorous brushstrokes—feels, in the words of this Kirkus review for one of her previous books (2010), “essentially Japanese: hand-done but with implicit craft; appearing simple but incredibly sophisticated.”
This Spring, she sees the release here in the U.S. of two illustrated titles – Kimiko Aman’s The Fox Wish, on shelves this month, and LEE’s The Lost Kitten, on shelves in April. The Fox Wish was originally published in Japan in 2003 as Kitsune no Kamisama; The Lost Kitten was first published in Japan two years ago as Yokuneru to Hina.
Aman’s The Fox Wish is a story of magic that will utterly delight the preschool set. “It was right in the middle of snack that I remembered,” the story opens (in quite an attention-grabbing and child-centered way). A young girl, who we later learn is named Roxie, realizes she has left her jump rope at the park – the one with her name carved on the handle. Her younger brother Lukie joins her as she heads there to find it. It isn’t where she thought it would be, but she and Lukie hear noises and wander off to discover a group of young foxes jumping rope. When Lukie laughs with glee, they are revealed. The foxes speak warmly to the children and even ask for jump-roping tips. Turns out the fox to whom Roxie says farewell before heading back home is also named Roxie and believes finding the jump rope was not only meant to be, but a wish come true. Roxie (the girl) plays along, never confessing that it’s her jump rope, the one she came to the park to find.
Sakai’s art here is rendered via paper, acrylic gouache, oil pencils, and ballpoint pens. There are a lot of warm, lush greens here in the outdoor setting, save the beautiful orange shades at the end when the sky turns “peachy” and the children start to head home. (There is a simplicity and directness to “Soon the sky was peachy” that I love.) The ten small foxes are immensely charming (you want to scoop one up to pet it), and the moments where Sakai shows them jumping are filled with joy – and even mischief, given that they think they are getting away with not being seen. Gonna try to pry this one out of the hands of preschoolers after you first read it to them? Good luck with that. It’s magical and beguiling and refreshingly adult-free.
LEE’s The Lost Kitten is the story of a “gooey”-eyed kitten left at the front door of a house by a mother cat in need. A young girl named Hina and her mother take in the kitten, though at first Hina admits she’d rather “get a cute one from the pet shop.” The story is all about the tiny kitten’s adjustment in the new home, but both author and illustrator touch upon deeper themes, ones of belonging and fear of abandonment. When Hina’s mother steps out to get some cat food, leaving her daughter with the grandmother sleeping in the next room, Hina discovers she can’t locate the kitten. She heads outside to the yard, assuming the cat ran out the door when her mother left. Hina recalls the one time she was separated from her mother in a department store and how terrified she felt.
It’s also a story of empathy, given that remembering her own scary moment of detachment commits Hina even more to the cause of finding the kitten she assumes is lost. At one point, she tells herself, “The cat left us her kitten. Now I have to be its mother. I have to give it a name. I have to find it.” She even gets on her hands and knees, pretending to be a kitten herself, doubling her efforts to assist the poor creature. In reality, that poor creature is sleeping peacefully inside – in an adorable heap, no less, as kittens are wont to do. Hina discovers this when she pops back in to get her coat and a blanket. In the book’s most honest moment (and it’s a story filled with many raw truths about childhood), Hina’s mother arrives back home, and “Hina was so relieved she began to cry.”
If Komako Sakai could henceforth be in charge of painting the world’s kittens, that’d be good, thanks very much. She captures kittens well here, bringing readers a vulnerable, trembling creature in the beginning, transformed into a happy, healthy, bright-eyed ball of fluff for a pet in the end. There are tender robin’s-egg blues throughout the spreads, which seem to emphasize the fragility of both the kitten and the young girl, who is so nervous about the responsibility of taking care of this new addition to her family. A reassuring pink increasingly creeps into the story as readers learn how acclimated and comfortable the new creature is in its new home. The Kirkus review for this one notes the “textured, scratchy, smudged look” of the illustrations that nails the personalities of the humans and cats here. Yes. That. It’s remarkable how much emotion Sakai can get from a bit of smudginess.
I’m always excited to see a new Sakai-illustrated title. Here’s to whatever comes next! And I raise my cup—let’s make it a cup of warm milk for straggly kittens looking for love—to those publishers who bring her work here to the States.
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.
THE LOST KITTEN. Original edition published in Japan by Bronze Publishing, Inc., Tokyo, © 2015 LEE, Komako Sakai. English language edition © Gecko Press Ltd 2017. Illustration reproduced by permission of Gecko Press.