One-Minute Book Reviews

October 3, 2009

Kimiko Kajikawa’s ‘Tsunami!’ With Art by Caldecott Medalist Ed Young

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 am
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A old farmer sacrifices his rice crop to save his neighbors from a monster wave

Tsunami! By Kimiko Kajikawa. Illustrated by Ed Young. Adapted from Lafcadio Hearn’s story, “A Living God.” Philomel, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

When I was a teenager, I had a summer job with a federal anti-poverty program that once took a group of children on a day trip to Point Pleasant Beach in southern New Jersey. Some of our young charges had never seen the ocean and were terrified by it. I looked after a boy of eight or nine who was so afraid of the water that he would go near it only when I carried him into it.

Since then, I’ve often seen similar scenes at Jersey Shore and elsewhere. Some children are so afraid of the ocean that you see them crying at the water’s edge even when their parents are holding onto them tightly.

So I can’t figure out what the Philomel editors were thinking when they recommended Tsunami! for ages 3–5 on their Web site. Older children might love Caldecott medalist Ed Young’s dramatic mixed-media cover image of a wave powerful enough to sweep up a Japanese temple gate. But if they’re old enough not to be frightened by it, wouldn’t they be too old for a picture book?

As for those 3-to-5 year olds: You wonder about the effect of book that describes not just a monster wave but the destruction of a village and the burning of a rice field, shown on two-page spreads with flames leaping across the gutters as a child screams. Young knows how to evoke devastation without needless gore, and throughout the book he does with it vibrant collage-like images that, unlike his more realistic cover picture, have an abstract-expressionist spirit. He suggests – instead of showing in bloody detail – the power of a monster wave.

Even so, Tsunami! is an odd book. Kimiko Kajikawa tells a dramatic story in this adaptation of a 19th-century tale about an old rice farmer who saves the lives of 400 people in his Japanese village. One autumn day, Ojiisan thinks that something doesn’t feel right, so he stays in his mountaintop cottage with his grandson when everybody else goes to a harvest celebration at a low-lying temple court. His instincts prove correct when the sea turns dark and begins to run away from the land. When he can’t get the attention of villagers who are in danger, Ojiisan sets fire to his rice field, anticipating – correctly — that they will see the flames and rush up the mountain to help put them out. I enjoyed reading this story, and it develops the worthy themes that people are more important than possessions and exceptional events call for exceptional sacrifices. But after living with this book for nearly two weeks, I’m still not sure who it’s for.

Best line/picture: A two-page spread of the rice harvest festival makes lovely use of framing, showing the celebration partly through a temple gate.

Worst line/picture: The picture that goes with “Finally, the sea returned to its ancient bed” is more abstract that than the others and doesn’t convey its meaning as clearly.

Furthermore: Young won the Caldecott Medal for Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Tale from China.

Published: February 2009

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Older children might love Caldecott medalist Ed Young’s dramatic mixed-media cover image of a wave powerful enough to sweep up a Japanese temple gate. But if they’re old enough not to be frightened by it, wouldn’t they be too old for a picture book?

    No, no, no.*

    There’s a misconception out there that picture books are only for younger children. Since the 70s, more and more picture books are being produced for older readers. While I agree with you that this book really isn’t appropriate for ages 3-5, I could easily see it being used in a folklore unit with older students (middle grades, probably 3-6) or in a unit about extreme weather (hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.).

    I love the artwork in this book, but it’s definitely more sophisticated and thus more appropriate for older readers.

    (*This knowledge is a result of taking over the teaching of our university’s children’s literature class as an adjunct this past summer when the regular professor became ill–I’m paraphrasing the textbook for the course!)

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — October 12, 2009 @ 7:06 pm | Reply

    • Thanks, Amanda. I agree that schools could make good use of this one in an extreme weather unit and that great picture books are produced for older children.

      What seems tricky here is that I keep hearing (and, to some extent, seeing) that after about the age of 6, some kids just won’t read picture books. You can give them a book like Tsunami!, and no matter how good it is, they’d rather have the chapter book (sometimes, I’m sure, for the “wrong” reason that they think picture books aren’t cool after a certain age).

      So when I write about a books like Tsunami!, I feel as though I need to add some qualifiers for parents who have a limited amount to spend on their children’s books that is, at least raise the possibility that an older child might prefer to have a different kind of book altogether.

      But I also think comments like yours are very helpful because they can help parents sort through all the issues that come into play with a book like this one. Thanks again.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 12, 2009 @ 8:24 pm | Reply

      • Well, it’s true that I tend to think about such books more from the standpoint of a librarian and someone helping to educate future teachers, rather than from the standpoint of a parent spending their hard-earned money on a book. In the latter situation, I would have to agree with you, it doesn’t make much sense for a parent to purchase this book. It’s too mature for the younger kids and there isn’t enough “meat” in it to justify the price (especially for a hardbound copy) for an older child. I did add it to my library’s curriculum collection, though!

        Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — October 12, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

      • Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to say: Tsunami! seems a bit mature for parents to buy for younger kids and not meaty enough for older ones. But I can see how it would be valuable for school and other libraries, especially because Elizabeth Bird, the SLJ blogger, said that before this one, there wasn’t a good picture book on tsunamis for people who wanted one.

        Bird said that, surprisingly, there are a lot of books on hurricanes but basically none on tsunamis. And with all the extreme weather we have now, it seems that most libraries would want to have a tsunami book for children if they could.

        Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 12, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

      • P.S. Have you read any Jacqueline Woodson? I was going to do her last Saturday (and will probably to Peace, Locomotion this Saturday). But I got swept up in Enid Blyton after learning that she ranks just behind Shakespeare among the world’s most translated authors.

        I am curious about how children react to Woodson because, while Peace, Locomotion is a lovely, well-written novel, it’s so quiet — very little plot or suspense — it’s hard to judge on that level.

        Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 12, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

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