Well, I'm back after visiting the International Schools in Tokyo, in honor of two consecutive years of Sakura Award nominations, one for SAHARA SPECIAL and one for DIARY OF A FAIRY GODMOTHER. The Sakura, being a children's choice award, meant that the nominations were made by my intended audience, and was therefore an especially touching honor. Here are a few cool things about Japan:
The International Schools, which I knew very little about until I accepted this invitation. I thought they were military schools, but in fact they were a network of private schools for children whose parents are primarily in business or otherwise work abroad. There are no Japanese children in attendance, as they must go to the national schools so that they can learn enough Kanji to succeed in the culture at large. The schools I visited were progressive, diverse and full of happy children (why not? They get to bang on drums at school! How rock and roll is that!) and OUTSTANDING readers....here are some cuties who are all carried away by the adventures of Jenni Holm's BABYMOUSE series. Good taste, girls!
The librarians, teachers and administrators were warm and knowledgable at every stop. My family for the most part stayed with Wouter, a Belgian librarian and all-around fun guy, and his lovely, welcoming wife and perfect baby son. Wouter's library was like an idea factory, with different funny hats hanging everywhere. Wouter explained that these were his "thinking caps," and children helped choose just the right hat he should wear before storytime, so he would be able to translate from Finnish into English. I put one on, but I still could not speak Finnish.
Everywhere, people treated us so generously, and were so thoughtful. One school had a royal tempura lunch biked in, another librarian had five different pastries to choose from for breakfast. One headmistress I stayed with had two little girls, and invited a boy to sleep over so my son would have someone to play with. Another librarian and her young daughter took us out to a supper that was so beautiful, my husband and I were up late into the night, replaying each dish over in our minds...and we have been replaying the jokes at the table over long after that! At every school, I met with children I will not soon forget, and educators in environments where achievement is a top priority, but were fiercely committed to giving children a wide variety of material to read for enjoyment so that they might create lifelong readers, not just test-takers. I am not naming names here for internet safety reasons, but I'll tell you, I've got a lot of thank-you notes to write!
The food. I love good, beautiful food so much (maybe second to books!) and the Japanese cuisine was definitely a highlight of my trip. In the basements of the department stores are prepared food counters that go on for a city block. The most beautiful pastries are nestled into little boxes with foil tissue, and individual freezer packets to keep the cakes the right temperature while in transit.
This care is strangely countered with an excess of mayonnaise on pretty much everything else, and tuna, shrimp and egg salad sandwiches for sale almost everywhere you go. They cannot possibly ALL be properly refrigerated, can they? Still, I took my chances and they were delicious. But deep-fried dough balls with a little dead octopus inside? No no no no no. I waited for the dark day of food poisoning, but was apparently looked after by my Guardian Foodie Angel. Perhaps the friendliest meal of all were the pancakes that actually smiled back at us at a local café. Talk about a good morning!
Also great were the plastic food samples on display in windows everywhere, helpful for pointing at when you don't have the right words (though the nasty brown plastic gravy is enough to make you lose your more than your power of speech). Here is a picture of me and author David Schwartz, who was touring the schools in honor of HOW MUCH IS A MILLION among his many, many other celebrated titles. David shared my passion for plates both palatable and plastic, the latter pictured behind us. Also had the pleasure of riding the train with him while he was shlepping a bag of ten thousand pieces of popcorn to his school visits. What a guy! What a presenter! I would have loved more time to visit, but there were more friends to see...
SCBWI Japan. The fledgling Tokyo chapter of the Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators very kindly rolled out the welcome mat to me, and we enjoyed charming company and one of the best meals of our whole stay in the marvelous restaurant owned by the family of Naomi Kojima. She is the author of the great new book hot off of the presses, SINGING SHIJIMI CLAMS, which brings to mind a kinder, gentler version of Lewis Carroll's "Walrus and the Carpenter," featuring a not-wicked-witch who befriends her supper; a strong addition to multicultural collections. Also pictured with me are young adult novelist Holly Thompson, illustrator John Shelley (who has a pretty wonderful book coming out next year, he showed me advance proofs) and not pictured is the multi-talented Gerri Sorrells, who, along with her husband, took the time to get us on the right track, literally, in the subway. To find out more about these and other international children's literature talents, check out SCBWI Japan. I must say, I love being a part of this professional organization; it's like having a caring, enthusiastic family away from home, wherever I go.
People-watching. The women in Japan seem, for the most part, very slim and gorgeous, and probably the most fashionable I've seen anywhere in the world. Their style is really stunning and imaginative, with faboo three inch heels, plaids and flowers and fearless uses of color, like artists; feathers, Chanel bags, haircuts like women in shampoo commercials. Some of the more splashy young people dress like super-ultra-hip crazy rave DJ's who scream out a la Kurt Cobain (kids hold band practice on the sidewalk, amps and all) and spiky-haired goth girls whose witchy-poo look make them seem as if they just stepped off of the pages of DIARY OF A FAIRY GODMOTHER, except their gracious bowing belies their true natures. Apart from these uber-mod tesselations, the men in suits, women in skirts, children in Prussian-influenced school uniforms (where can I get one of those sailor suits?) and general use of hats make everything seem like another time period altogether.
Which means, shopping's off. The clothes are cut for size-2 fashion models, not for nice midwestern "I'll have a cheeseburger-with-thousand-island-dressing" gals like me. Though how do the women fit these clothes, when there are potato salad sandwiches for sale everywhere, and if the food stops moving long enough, it will be breaded and fried (and covered with mayonnaise)? The thinness is very mysterious. Also, lots of soft-spoken women. Voices oh so very gentle and low, like a breeze through the maples. Huh? Wha? Excuse me? I started to go a little crazy, like I was living the "puffy shirt" episode of Seinfeld. Ooo, when those gorgeous girls decide to speak up, watch out, world!
Sight-seeing. This was mostly a working trip for me, visiting schools almost every day, but what better sight can there be than smiling children? All the same, I was excited to have a little time to make two memorable visits: one, to the statue of Hachiko, the faithful dog who walked his master to and from the train station every day, and when the owner died at work, the dog continued to come for years and years. Also took the Shinkansen, or bullet train, to the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, where I was able to see the real paper cranes of Sadako, who folded them by the thousands in an act of hope that she would survive the radiation poisoning that ravaged her body after the dropping of the Atomic Bomb. I had read about the cranes, but had no idea how tiny they really were, some of them folded with the tips of needles. In the photo below, they are lit from beneath. The museum was memorable and stirring; I wished that everyone could see it, especially those in military training, as it gives a resonating understanding of the causes and effects of war. I liked what conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein wrote in the guest book: "Fewer words! More actions!"
On the way back to Tokyo, we stopped at an amazing handicraft store in Kyoto, where we saw breathtaking modern and antique woodcut poster art (a special delight for my husband, who is an artist in a similar medium) and plenty of dolls. Hours slipped away, staring at the beautiful work and choosing souvenirs (I couldn't resist a couple of bells to use as a call to storytime!). On another Sunday, I was very psyched to be at a local shrine for Shichi-go-san, a holiday in which gratitude for children's health at the ages of 3, 5 and 7 is commemorated. Little children were really decked out in full traditional costume to celebrate their special day , and got colorful goody bags as souvenirs. Parents and grandparents were bursting with pride, and puppet shows and dramatic performances abounded along the path. What a merry time!
People said it would be very different in Japan, and while I was for the most part comfortable, truth be told, there were a couple of culture shocks at least as hard to swallow as ball-o-octopus:
The endless faux pas. Like the main character in my new book I try to be a polite person, and like the character in the book, I often fail. In Tokyo, it is impolite to eat while you walk or to put one's hands in one's pockets or cross one's arms. Three things I didn't realize I do all the time until I couldn't do them anymore.
The trains. I was hopeless when it came to taking the trains and busses. The splayed, colored, interweaving lines of the subway system reminded me of certain illustrations of the nervous system in my high school biology textbooks. Yes, some of the words are in English, but when the words are the likes of Kichijoji and Shibuya, well...new territory for Auntie Esme, folks. Wouter was especially patient about drawing maps and arranging liasons.
There was a picture in Richard Scarry's now out-of-print BUSY, BUSY WORLD, in which a beetle goes into a Japanese subway train with a big fat round sausage and comes out with a long thin noodle-like sausage. When I was a kid, I thought that was hilarious. But Richard Scarry was not kidding. Imagine the most crowded subway car you possibly can. Then add thirty people. "Pushmen" come with big flat paddles shove in the people who are still hanging out, grappling at the edges of the doors. Sweet Mother. Once inside, no talking, please, and no looking at each other. Just sleeping, playing games on cell phones and checking out the nudie cuties in a manga digest.
Overall, though, a toast to Tokyo, using any of the fine beverages in the numerous dispensers all over the city (green tea, anyone?)! Sayonara is such sweet sorrow, but I'm glad to be back in the states and look forward to beating this jet lag and being your holiday shopping helper, recommending the best new books and old favorites in the days to come.
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