Sunday, November 18, 2012

Kamishibai Man by Allen Say

Say, Allen. 2005. Kamishibai Man Book Cover. From

Say, Allen. 2005. KAMISHIBAI MAN. Boston: Walter Lorraine Books, Houghton Mifflin Books. ISBN 978-0618479542

Not so long ago in Japan an old man and his wife, Jiichan (Grandpa) and Baachan (Grandma), lived a quiet life in the countryside. But one day Jiichan decides to take his bicycle into the city like he once did many years ago. He can’t believe how much the city has changed and the noise that permeates the once quiet streets. He pulls into a vacant lot and sets up the Kamishibai box. Clack, clack! He hits together the wooden blocks and begins to tell the story of what it was like to be the beloved neighborhood kamishibai man. He remembers the children that flocked to him, buying sweets and listening to him tell Japanese folktales. But then TV came on the scene and the children were too busy to be interrupted by the kamishibai man. Soon after he stopped going on his rounds. But as Jiichan opens his eyes he realizes that the children who once listened to his stories have returned as grown ups! That night Jiichan asks his wife to make twice as many candies for tomorrow.  

This is a bittersweet, nostalgic story that is related in an unhurried manner. The beginning of the book is slower, but the story picks up speed when Jiichan recalls the heydays of kamishibai. The book begins with descriptive narrative text written in third person past tense; however this changes when Jiichan tells the story of his past. Then the text is all dialogue spoken by the old man. The narrative resumes when Jiichan realizes he has had an audience for his story. The realistic illustrations match the tone of the story by becoming livelier and more stylized in the flashback scenes.  

The book contrasts the tranquil rural landscape with the bustling city. These opposite settings emphasis the theme of old versus new, then versus now. Other themes in the book look at aging, progress, change, and the increased pace of life in modern day Japan as compared with slower bygone days.

Although there are children in the story, the old man’s search for his purpose is the focal point. Jiichan and Baachan are quiet and introspective characters and Say draws parallels to the childless old couple in the Japanese folktale, “The Peach Boy.” Compare the opening sentences of the book, “Not so long ago in Japan, in a small house on a hillside, there lived an old man and his wife. Even though they never had children of their own…” to the beginning of the folktale Jiichan tells the children, “Long, long ago, there once lived an old man and his wife who had no children…”

Sounds are often mentioned in the text. For example when Jiichan is happy he hums a tune his mother used to sing to him and he begins his kamishibai story with the “sharp, loud” sound of the wooden blocks (“hyoushigi” in Japanese), “Clack, clack!”

The watercolor illustrations are full of vivid details that bring Japanese culture to life. Say presents both traditional as well as more contemporary images of Japan. For instance, the couple lives in a traditional Japanese house in the country. They wear traditional clothing in their house with the sliding wooden doors, but Jiichan wears contemporary clothes when he travels to the city. Jiichan’s grown up audience wears a variety of clothing, from casual to formal, which highlights the wide range of personalities within the community. Say’s illustrations feature children of all shapes and sizes with an assortment of hairstyles and personalities. In addition, Four Japanese folktales are mentioned in the text and scenes from those stories can be seen on the story cards in the illustrations.

Kamishibai means “paper theatre” or “paper play” in Japanese and this book is clearly Say’s homage to the art form. Not only does the story tell the history of kamishibai, but the rectangular illustrations that accompany Jiichan’s flashback are formatted much like kamishibai story cards. In the forward the author briefly outlines his childhood memories of kamishibai and his goal to be “your ‘paper theater man’ for a day.” An afterward by Japanese folklore scholar, Tara McGowan, concludes the book. The afterward provides information on the creation and development of kamishibai over the years.

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Review in KIRKUS REVIEWS: "Say effectively incorporates two illustration styles here—lovely soft watercolors and a more cartoonish style for flashbacks to the heyday of kamishibai. A fascinating window on a bygone art form."

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Say's distinctive style and facial expressions are especially touching...The power of the story and the importance of the storyteller are felt in this nostalgic piece that makes readers think about “progress.” Those interested in storytelling and theater will be especially impressed with this offering, but it will have broad appeal.

Review in BOOKLIST: "The story-within-a-story that emerges reveals why this unique type of performance art has all but disappeared. The quietly dramatic, beautifully evocative tale contains a cliffhanger of its own, and its exquisite art, in the style of Kamishibai picture cards, will attract even the most jaded kid away from the TV to enjoy a good, good book."

Starred review in PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY: "Say's gift is to multiply themes without struggling under their weight. Aging, cultural change, the way humans seem to lose warmth with technological advances—he gestures toward all of these while keeping the lens tightly focused on the kamishibai man."

Review in BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR CHILDREN'S BOOKS: "The watercolors shift from their usual rich realism to a more stylized approach, seemingly echoing the pictures traditionally displayed for kamishibai, when slipping into flashback, which cleverly gives a greater taste of the tradition while indicating the time difference."

*Read some of the Japanese folktales featured in the book:
Goodman, Robert B. & Spicer, Robert A. 1994. ISSUNBOSHI. Ill. George Suyeoka. ISBN 978-0896102781
Higgins, Nadia. 2012. ISSUN BOSHI (ONE-INCH BOY): A JAPANESE FOLKTALE. Ill. J. T. Morrow. ISBN 978-1609731397
Sakade, Florence. 2008. PEACH BOY AND OTHER JAPANESE STORIES. Ill. Yoshisuke Kurosaki. ISBN 978-4805309964
Suyeoka, George. 1972. MOMOTARO: PEACH BOY. ISBN 978-0834830042

*Use the following discussion questions after reading a version of THE LITTLE INCH BOY and THE PEACH BOY.
-How is the boy who cannot afford to buy candy like the little inch boy?
-THE KAMISHIBAI MAN begins very much like the folktale, “The Peach Boy.” How are Jiichan and Baachan like the couple in the folktale?

*Have kids create their own kamishibai stories, which can be as short as three cards or as long as sixteen cards. This can be done alone or in groups of two or three. Choose to make cards for a Japanese folktale, a familiar folktale, or on a subject the group has been studying recently. Have kids write the text of their story of the back of the cards. Encourage kids to perform their stories for their peers. This promotes oral fluency. Teacher and librarian Julie Rosenoff provides an example of an assignment sheet, as well as helpful tips on planning and creating your kamishibai cards:

*Kamishibai for Kids provides information on the history of Kamishbai, as well as techniques for using Kamishibai in an educational setting:

*Other picture books by Allen Say:
Say, Allen. 1982. THE BICYCLE MAN. ISBN 978-0685057049
Say, Allen. 1993. GRANDFATHER’S JOURNEY. ISBN 978-0395570357
Say, Allen. 1996. EMMA’S RUG. ISBN 978-0395742945
Say, Allen. 1999. TEA WITH MILK. ISBN 978-0395904954
Say, Allen. 2003. THE SIGN PAINTER. ISBN 978-0395979747
Say, Allen. 2010. THE BOY IN THE GARDEN. ISBN 978-0547214108

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