A sixty-four page picture book? By a tiny regional press? I never would have predicted that a book fitting that description would end up on my Christmas list, but that was before I’d seen Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko. This unusual book is really two books in one. The first half of the book is a picture book biography, framed by the story of the researcher who searched out and collected the female Japanese poet’s unpublished poems, that gives the account of her brief and tragic life. Yet despite the tragedy, her poetry is luminous and child-friendly. Ten of her poems are used within the text to comment on or illuminate biographical events.
The second half of the book is a collection of 15 more poems. Each is published in English with Japanese on the facing page.
Finally, the back matter includes both and author’s note and a translator’s note.
Others have written extensively about this interesting book–Betsy Bird’s blog is where I first read about it and a review I highly recommend. I won’t repeat the many wise things that have been said about it, but inspired by Megan Dowd Lambert’s fantastic book, Reading Picture Books with Children where she encourages readers to consider not just the text in books but also the design elements that accompany it, I did want to point out some things I noticed about this book as an object.
Surprisingly, the book is printed in landscape format. Usually picture book biographies–portraits of people–are printed in portrait orientation. But the choice of landscape orientation is apt. The low, long rectangle visually brings the sky down closer to the heads in the illustrations, giving a sense of intimacy and enclosure that fits both the story and the poetry. The paper the story is printed on is heavy and matte. It’s very satisfying to turn the page and feel the weight of the page. Its lack of glossiness seems to tie into the theme of looking at nature: there’s nothing over-manufactured or slick about it.
One of the most wonderful design elements of the book is the endpapers. They’re solid blue which you would think is unremarkable but the papers are richly textured, like a snake skin or the bark of a tree. I love running my hand over the endpapers. This understatement–a quiet color but an unusual and striking texture–is evocative of the poems. The poems are deceptively simple on a first read, but richly layered as you read them again and carry them in your head.
It’s a beautiful book and a beautiful story of hope and redemption.
Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko narrative by David Jacobson and translation by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi, illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri. Chin Music Press: 2016.
I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge every Wednesday at Kid Lit Frenzy.