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Taro Yashima: An Author Study Paper

by Becky Laney

In February 1955, Taro Yashima published a short article entitled “On Making A Book For A Child.” In this article, he shared how he came to be an author and illustrator of children’s books. He concludes the article with his own personal goal in writing, “The world is wide. Everything in it can be used to make books for children. But I think the theme of these should be, ‘This earth is beautiful! Living is wonderful! Believe in humankind!’” (Yashima, “On Making A Book For A Child,” 24). Yashima’s writing philosophy was pure and simple, and it is clear in each of his books.

Yashima wrote and illustrated many children’s books. Several of his books, A Village Tree (1953), Plenty to Watch (1954), and Crow Boy (1955) are set in Yashima’s native Japan. In fact, each of those books in some way reflect Yashima’s own childhood memories. But Yashima also wrote books set in the United States. Yashima wrote three books, Umbrella (1958), Momo’s Kittens (1961), and Youngest One (1962) that featured his daughter, Momo. By reading these books, it is evident that Yashima’s strength in writing and illustrating stem from his own life and experiences.

The Village Tree, Yashima’s first picture book was “a beautiful interpretation in poetic prose and picture of the author’s childhood in Japan” (Haviland, 1953, 454). Yashima tells of his adventures with his playmates gathered around a particular tree. The illustrations are simple, yet convey a sense of peace and happiness. In “On Making A Book for A Child,” Yashima comments on his own imagery, “The Village Tree was a tree which stood deep in my memory as a symbol of my childhood...I climbed up on every branch and swam around under the tree to find out the reasons which made the joy in the memories” (Yashima, 1955, 24).

One year later, Yashima and his wife teamed up to write another picture book about their childhood in a Japanese village. Plenty To Watch portrays “the sights, sounds, and smells the children experienced as they stopped before stores, workshops, and farmyards” (Kinsey, 1954, 23). Once again, the focus of the story is on how beautiful life is. In both The Village Tree and Plenty to Watch life is seen as something precious. There is a sense of joy, peace, happiness -- and above all innocence. It is a world that knows no fear. A large part of this sense of peace is conveyed through Yashima’s illustrations.

Yashima’s first two books brought him some attention and praise from reviewers, but Crow Boy was his first “big” success. Crow Boy is the story of an outcast boy who attended school yet remained isolated from his classmates. Through the friendship of one special teacher, the boy finally is able to join his classmates. The Booklist review read, “With the same sensitivity, spare but expressive text, and distinctive, glowing pictures that characterized his earlier books, the author-artist tells the story of a strange, forlorn little boy in a village school in Japan” (Kinsey, 1955, 131). Lindquist wrote, “The beautiful pictures linger in one’s memory as if one had been in the village and walked with little Chibi, morning and night, the long walk between his home and school” (1955, 447). Mordvinoff wrote in his column “Artist’s Choice” that “the bold expressionism with a touch of humor, tempered by an oriental delicacy, blends in a rare poetic mood and carries through from the first to the last page -- not to ignore the end papers which are among the most beautiful designs” (1956, 429). While many reviewers focused on the artwork, Anne Carrol Moore was quick to point out that, “it is a rare commentary on educational values which survive the shock and strain of our time, and it cannot fail to impress the person of any age -- parent, teacher or librarian -- who looks to the imagination of the artist to reveal what may lie behind the school of his experience whether in far-off mountain village or on crowded city street” (1956, 99). Crow Boy was a Caldecott Honor Book.

These three books, The Village Tree, Plenty to Watch, and Crow Boy share Yashima’s Japanese background -- his childhood experiences -- with American children. In particular, he wrote the books for his daughter, Momo. In each of these books, Yashima presented childhood in universal terms. He was showing American children that Japanese children -- although they may look different -- do the same things they do. They laugh, play, cry, etc. In fact, the dedication page of The Village Tree states, “Do you know a country far, far to the east, that we call Japan? Do you know, there too we have many children like you?”(4).

Yashima also chose to write about his daughter, Momo. She is the star in three of his books: Umbrella, Momo’s Kittens, and Youngest One. Taro Yashima had a very special bond with his daughter. This devotion is evident in these three books. (Momo is also featured in five dedication pages!) In “On Making a Book For A Child” Yashima shares how Momo was such a comfort to him when he was in pain from stomach ulcers. He wrote, “If it were not for my illness I never would have known that such a gentle human being could exist in such a little helpless baby. I wanted to thank this little life and tell some nice stories to make this little girl happy” (Yashima, “On Making A Book For A Child, 24).

In 1958, Yashima published Umbrella. Umbrella shares the story of Momo’s third birthday and its subsequent events. Momo received an umbrella and a pair of rain boots. She eagerly awaits the chance to use them, but must learn patience. When the rain does finally come, she shows the first sign of growing independence when she walks down the street without holding either her mother’s or her father’s hand. Yashima’s illustrations once again shine out. Kinsey wrote that the “beautiful colored pictures capture the moods of the child and the city” (1958, 484). Umbrella was Yashima’s second Caldecott Honor Book.

In 1961, Yashima writes a follow-up story about Momo, Momo’s Kitten. Momo finds a stray kitten. She brings the kitten home hoping that her father will let her keep it. “Momo made herself ready to cry in case Father should say it was not all right” (Yashima, 1961, 4) Fortunately, tears were not necessary. Her father enjoyed seeing how happy Momo was holding the kitty. The kitten, of course, grows up and begins to have kittens of her own. Momo is saddened that she has to give them away, but overjoyed to learn that her cat is expecting another litter soon. Kinsey wrote that Yashima’s colored drawings “bring out the soft furriness of the cat and kittens” and are charming (1961, 172).

The third book about Momo, Youngest One, was written in 1962. In Youngest One Momo befriends a two-year-old neighbor boy, Bobby. Bobby is at first shy and bashful around Momo or any stranger. He hides behind his grandma’s legs. Yet Momo’s friendly sweet nature bring the boy out of his shyness. The two become good friends.

Each of the Momo books present a loving portrait of his daughter. They share a personal glimpse into Yashima’s life and heart. The events of the books are simple and universal. Any child can relate to Momo in these books.

There are many overlying themes in Yashima’s books. His love for children is evident in each one. Each of his books does in fact present the philosophy that children are precious commodities. Childhood should be safe, innocent, and happy -- all over the world. Whether he is relating the experiences of his own childhood or that of his daughter -- Yashima is presenting a positive image of human life and existence. Each book paints life as full of hope and beauty. Each of Yashima’s books present a facet of humanity. Perhaps this is best seen in Umbrella and Crow Boy. Both feature memorable characters: Momo and Chibi. Even though there is pain and suffering in Crow Boy there is never a lack of hope in the world.

In More Junior Authors, Yashima wrote, “I believe that one should be able to contribute his best for the growth of the younger generation as long as one lives as a human being. I would like to continue publishing picture books for children until my life ends. The theme for all those should be, needless to say, ‘Let children enjoy living on this earth, let children be strong enough not to be beaten or twisted by evil on this earth’” (231). Taro Yashima was an incredibly significant author and illustrator in the twentieth century. His work will continue to reach children because it is timeless.

Reference List

Brown, Margaret Warren. 1961. Review of Momo’s kittens, by Mitsu and Taro Yashima. Horn Book Magazine 37 (October) : 435.

D., E. 1958. Review of Umbrella, by Taro Yashima. Horn Book Magazine 34 (August) : 260.

Fisher, Margery, ed. 1975. “Crow Boy.” Who’s who in children’s books: A treasury of the familiar characters of childhood. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Haviland, Virginia. 1953. Review of The Village Tree, by Taro Yashima. Horn Book Magazine 29 (December) : 454-55.

---. 1968. Review of Seashore Story, by Taro Yashima. Horn Book Magazine 44 (February) : 56.

Johnson, Glenn. 1967. “Golden village.” Horn Book Magazine 43 (April) : 183-91.

Kinsey, Helen E. 1953. Review of The village tree, by Taro Yashima. The booklist 50 (November) : 126.

---. 1954. Review of Plenty to watch, by Mitsu and Taro Yashima. The booklist 51 (September) : 23.

---.1955. Review of Crow boy, by Taro Yashima. The booklist 52 (November) : 131.

---. 1958. Review of Umbrella, by Taro Yashima. The booklist 54 (April) : 484.

---. 1961. Review of Momo’s kittens, by Mitsu and Taro Yashima. The booklist 58 (November) : 172.

Lewis, Claudia. 1995. “Yashima, Taro.” Twentieth century children’s writers. Laura Standley Berger, ed. Detroit: St. James Press.

Lindquist, Jennie D. 1954. Review of Plenty to Watch, by Mitsu and Taro Yashima. Horn Book Magazine 30 (October) : 327-8.

---. 1955. Review of Crow boy, by Taro Yashima. Horn Book Magazine 31 (December) : 447.

Mathis, Janelle. 2001. “Yashima, Taro.” The continuum encyclopedia of children’s literature. Bernice E. Cullinan and Diane G. Person, eds. New York: Continuum.

Moore, Anne Carroll. 1956. “The Three Owls’ Notebook.” Horn Book Magazine 32 (April) : 99-101.

Mordvinoff, Nicolas. 1956. “Artist’s choice: Crow boy.” Horn Book Magazine 32 (December) : 429-30.

Yashima, Mitsu and Taro Yashima. 1954. Plenty to watch. New York: The Viking Press. 0-670-56110-X

---. 1961. Momo’s kitten. New York: The Viking Press. 0-14-050200-9

Yashima, Taro. 1943. The new sun. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

---. 1953. The village tree. New York: The Viking Press. 0-670-05072-5

---. 1955. “On making a book for a child.” Horn Book Magazine 31 (February) : 21-24.

---. 1958. Umbrella. New York: Puffin Books. ISBN: 0-14-050240-8

---. 1962. Youngest one. New York: The Viking Press.

---. 1963. “Taro Yashima.” More junior authors. Muriel Fuller, ed. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company.

---. 1967. Seashore story. New York: The Viking Press. 0-670-62710-0

---. 1976. Crow boy. New York: Puffin Books. ISBN: 0-14-050172-X

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