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.