It’s not often you run across a picture book biography like David Jacobson’s Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri and translated by Jacobson, Sally Ito, and Michiko Tsuboi. For one, the book—which tells the life story of beloved Japanese children’s poet Misuzu Kaneko, whose work went virtually forgotten for many decades—is unflinchingly honest, managing to sensitively and gracefully convey the sexually transmitted disease Kaneko contracted from her unfaithful husband to her decision to end her own life at the age of 26. And for another thing, the book is bursting with Kaneko’s poems and even closes with a selection of 15 more poems, each one laid out in both Japanese and English.
It’s an unforgettable story, told in a bold way. I reached out to Jacobson to ask about the project and working with the team of translators with whom he collaborated. (Anyone wanting even more information can check out Janet Wong’s recent Q&A with Jacobson and Sally Ito over at Poetry for Children.)
Jules: Hi, David! Thanks for chatting with me about this book. I admit that it sat around for a while, unread. I get lots of review copies of picture books, and it got lost in some stacks. When I picked it up and read it to my girls, I was (happily) surprised—even rather stunned—by several things.
David: Hi, Jules. No worries. I’m glad it finally surfaced!
Jules: First off, did you know from the beginning that you wanted to incorporate a great deal of Kaneko's poems in the book? It’s remarkable how much is in there.
David: It actually came about the other way around. I started off wanting to publish Misuzu's poetry. But after I submitted my book proposal, the folks at Chin Music Press convinced me that Misuzu’s backstory was so interesting and so much a part of her “story” that we should include it as well. At that point, I started investigating how picture book biographies worked, especially those of literary figures and poets. It struck me again and again that these biographies did a wonderful job of telling about their lives, but would hardly include any poetry. They made me hungry for more! So I decided that I wanted to include as much poetry as possible. Fortunately, Chin allowed me 64 pages to work with, which permits a lot of room for both poetry and biography.
Jules: That's pretty incredible that they gave you the freedom to do that. Let me back up a bit and ask about that moment you knew you wanted to write about her poetry. What lead you to that? How long had you been a fan of her writing? What was your research like?
David: A long-time Japanese friend and her father, who both loved Misuzu, gave me a short anthology of her most famous poems in Japanese about three years ago. I read it and was instantly smitten. Looking her up online, I discovered that she had this incredible life story but was virtually unknown in the English-language world. So I put all that into a book proposal, which was accepted in early 2014.
At that point, I took it on myself to read Misuzu’s entire corpus (512 poems published in six volumes) and two 350-page biographies. My Japanese is quite fluent—I’ve worked variously as a translator and interpreter over the years—but it still took me months and months to get through all that material. There was almost no background material about her in English, save a single unpublished Master’s thesis. Then I started writing the first of what ended up being 40-plus drafts. A few months into writing, I went to visit Misuzu’s hometown in Japan. There I was taken on a tour of the town and the Misuzu Kaneko Memorial Museum by the poet who rediscovered her work, as well as by the publisher who published it. Joining me, too, were one of our two translators and the illustrator, both of whom live in Japan. I invited the illustrator, in particular, because I wanted him to see the locations Misuzu lived in and wrote about. Several of the illustrations (for instance, the one of the bookstore, which is now the museum) are nearly photographic renditions of the actual sites in Japan.
Jules: I was struck by the book’s candor – how you managed to address that she had a sexually transmitted disease, as well as her suicide. Can you talk about the decision to include those? Did you always know there’d be no tiptoeing around those facts?
David:Well, it was a difficult issue, no question. We solicited opinions from those on the book team, as well as other children’s authors and reviewers we knew outside. We got pretty strong views from both sides. Partly because of our journalistic backgrounds, (Chin Music Press Publisher) Bruce Rutledge and I both leaned toward being honest with our readers from early on. But it took many, many rewrites to find the right degree of honesty, simplicity, and child-friendliness. In the end, I think we made the right decision. Most people tell us they’re glad we handled the story the way we did. Even one of the folks who opposed the inclusion of her death wrote me recently to say she had changed her mind. She was glad we decided to talk about Misuzu’s tragic end, because it helps us appreciate her character and her poetry that much more.
Jules: I am impressed. We simply don’t see this very often in picture book biographies.
David: Thank you! I think we may have been able to do so, because we are relatively new to the children’s book world. We took risks and pushed the envelope in ways that other more experienced publishers might not have attempted, given what they know about the market. There have been some costs to our “recklessness": Are You an Echo? may disqualify for some awards, because it doesn’t fit cleanly into existing categories. Moreover, booksellers don’t quite know where to shelve it. One even suggested it might go on a shelf of children’s books dealing with bereavement.
Jules: How impressed are you with the translators’ work? As they discuss in their closing note, “English is limited in its capacity to convey Misuzu’s subtle feminine sensibility and the elegant nuances of her classical allusions.” And then there was working with you, as the author, after they began work on the book. How did you all work together?
David: I am very happy with the translations. They achieve both poeticism, as well as a casual, motherly or, alternatively, child-like tone. That’s what I sought in selecting Sally and Michiko to do the translations (with Bruce’s assent, of course). The three of us worked together for months translating and editing the poems. Sally and Michiko, who live in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Shiga, Japan, respectively, would email each other and sometimes discuss the translations via Skype. Then they would send me their results, and I would offer my criticisms. We would go back and forth among the three of us on each poem many times until we were all satisfied. There are nuances, of course, that we couldn’t bring to the English versions. How, for instance, would you render in English speech that every Japanese [person] would know is spoken by a young girl? You can make it child-like, but it’s hard to make it specifically girlish.
Jules: Yes, that’s a fascinating challenge—and I didn’t know that about the Japanese language—but at the very least it’s good that it’s addressed in the back of the book.
What’s next for you, David?
David:For the time being, I’m up to my ears in marketing the book. Since Chin Music Press is a small company, I have to do a lot of that, too. Next January, the Japanese publisher of Misuzu’s poetry has asked me to come to Japan to participate in a series of events with Setsuo Yazaki, the Japanese poet who rediscovered Misuzu in the 1980s.
As for my writing, I haven’t begun any new project yet, but I’m tempted to find another subject usually considered off-limits for kids. Earlier this year, librarian Jennifer Hubert Swan said that “we need more thoughtfully produced, high-quality picture books about sensitive topics for young children.” I hope to take on her challenge.
Jules:I look forward to whatever is next. Thanks for chatting, David!
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.
ARE YOU AN ECHO? THE LOST POETRY OF MISUZU KANEKO. Copyright © 2016 David Jacobson. Translations by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi. Illustrations by Toshikado Hajiri. Published by Chin Music Press, Seattle, Washington. Illustration used by permission of David Jacobson.