Japanese Picture Books That Defined My Childhood

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Patricia Thang

Senior Contributor

Patricia Thang is an educator located in Los Angeles. Though a native Angeleno through and through, her heart also belongs to Tokyo, where much of her family is from. Besides books, she is an enthusiastic devourer of many things, including podcasts, television, and J-pop. She realizes there’s not enough time in the world to consume all of that content, but she’s trying anyway. Other endeavors to which she has dedicated herself include cuddling her dogs until they’re annoyed and taste-testing every vegan ice cream she can find. Twitter: @aintnopthang

It is a fact that many people, especially us book lovers, will always remember and hold dear certain books that helped to shape our lives during adolescence. But what about the books that we loved as little kids? The books that we made our parents read to us over and over again, the books that were among the first we managed to read on our own? These are the books that we might give to young nieces or nephews, or to friends who are having their first baby. I feel like we don’t talk about these defining children’s books as often, but I’m positive we can all think of at least a few (for me, Stellaluna is one that immediately comes to mind). As the child of immigrants, however, the picture books I grew up with included both English and Japanese selections, which means I can’t share some of my favorites with many of the people around me. Amazingly, I discovered that two wonderful Japanese picture book series that I grew up with and continue to love have been translated to English, and I am here to share them with you!

guri and gura rieko nakagawaGuri and Gura (Japanese: Guri to Gura)
Written by Rieko Nakagawa, illustrated by Yuriko Yamawaki, translated by Peter Howlett and Richard McNamara
My strongest memories from being a toddler probably have to do with this book series. My mom would read it to me often and we would sing the words of the story to a melody that she made up. To this day, I am able to sing this “song” we created together, and this book remains very close to my heart because of it. Guri and Gura is a picture book series that began in 1967 and follows a pair of twin anthropomorphized mice. In the first book of the series, Guri and Gura find a giant egg in the forest and use it to make a cake. Similarly, other books in the series follow the pair as they go on various adventures and befriend other woodland creatures. The storylines are always very pure and sweet, and have little to no deeper meaning behind them. Yamawaki’s illustrations are also very simplistic and use a limited color palette. This very minimalist approach, however, is what I have always loved about these books. They are simply cute and fun, and evidently widely accessible and beloved, as they have been translated into multiple languages, including Korean, Spanish, French, and even Esperanto.
Note: The illustrations for the Japanese edition of the first book of the series are credited to Yuriko Ōmura (married name).

one stormy night yuichi kimuraOne Stormy Night (Japanese: Arashi no Yoru ni)

Written by Yuichi Kimura, illustrated by Hiroshi Abe, translated by Lucy North
One Stormy Night was originally published in 1994 as a standalone book. However, after winning multiple awards and gaining massive popularity in Japan, Kimura decided to continue the story as a series. The seventh and final book was published in 2005. The story continues to be extremely popular (among children and adults alike), having been adapted multiple times to both stage and screen, including, most recently, a kabuki production in 2015. The series tells the story of a wolf, Gabu, and a goat, Mei, who meet one night inside a dark barn where they both happened to take shelter during a storm. Without ever seeing each other in the darkness, the two become friends as they talk through the night and huddle together for warmth. The two decide to meet the following day so that they can see each other face to face, and are both shocked to find out the identity of the other. However, the two overcome their natural instinct to view the other as an enemy and become best friends, despite the fact that it makes them pariahs within their own communities. One Stormy Night is a beautiful story about friendship, embracing what makes us different, and fighting back against those who view “other” as negative. The illustrations by Hiroshi Abe are lovely as well, and they alternate between simple line drawings with black and white or colored pen and watercolor illustrations. The variety of mediums used helps to portray the complexity of the world as well as to inspire imagination and creativity. This series is extremely touching, and has brought me to tears on multiple occasions.

Do you have any picture books from your childhood that you continue to love to this day (extra points for translated works!)? Let us know in the comments!