Monday, July 19, 2010

Review: Kamishibai Man by Allen Say

Author: Allen Say
Title: Kamishibai Man
Illustrator: Allen Say
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Publication Date: 2005
ISBN: 978-0-618-47954-2

Not so long ago, there lived in Japan an old man and his wife. They called themselves Jiichan (Grandpa) and Baachan (Grandma) even though they had no children. It had been many years since the man had worked, but Jiichan decides to put his paper theater box on his bicycle and ride it into town. His wife makes the same candies for him to sell as she had so many years ago. When Jiichan arrives in the city, he is surprised at the changes, so many cars, tall buildings, and shops and restaurants where a park used to be. He sets up his stage, checks the story cards and candies inside, claps two wooden blocks together, and calls for the children to come. “Come gather around me, little ones, your kamishibai man is here again!” Jiichan recalls aloud the children who visited, the stories he told, the advent of television, and the last child who came to hear his stories. Suddenly, he hears voices asking for his stories. It was the same children, all grown up, ready to hear the kamishibai man once again.

Allen Say was born in Yokohama, Japan in 1937. He grew up during a time when kamishibai (paper theater) was popular. Many people took to the streets using this art form and selling candy in order to make a living during times of economic depression. Eventually, the economy improved and television was invented, making kamishibai unpopular as a reminder of harder times. Allen Say recalls the kamishibai man of his youth with fondness in the foreward. Since the kamishibai man’s stories always left the hero and heroine hanging from a cliff or getting pushed off it, “when I came to America, that (cliffhanger) was one expression that nobody had to explain to me.... Let me be your “paper theater man” for a day.”

Kamishibai Man focuses on the themes of aging and the effects of technological advancements in this heartwarming story of an elderly man’s attempt to recapture the joy he felt when he told stories using his paper theater. Many elderly people recall portions of their life with fondness and want to relive it. Jiichan tries to do just that as he loads up his theater and candy and pedals into the city to tell his stories once again. His legs are still good, he notes, and he almost seems to compare himself to a nearby bridge. “Well, good morning to you, rickety old bridge, still going strong after all these years, um, mmm.” He began humming a tune that his mother had sung to him long ago. When he arrives in the city, he is confused. It does not match his memories. “This isn’t right.... I must have taken a wrong turn.” Even though he recognizes bits and pieces, there were more cars, tall buildings, rude drivers, shops, and restaurants. “You’d think I was in another country!... Don’t remember such rude drivers.” He even notes the missing park and trees, all in the name of progress. After he parks his bicycle, opens his theater, and checks the story cards and candy, he starts to hum again. He is back in his memories of his past. Clapping two wooden blocks together, Jiichan calls the children of his memories to him, for there are none around to hear.

Up until this point, the watercolor illustrations have been realistically rendered using shadows and texture to add depth to the background of the hills, trees, and city and to provide texture to Jiichan’s clothing and expression and emotions to his face. Suddenly, the paintings change. As Jiichan greets the children of his past, the storytelling frame shows them running up to him; however, they are painted in a flatter, cartoon-like manner, in the same style that was used on many of the story cards in kamishibai storytelling. Jiichan’s face is younger, but the expression is similar and just as expressive as in the more realistic style. “Long, long ago, there once lived an old man and his wife who had no children...” he begins just as his own story began before he rode to town.

Then one night he recalls seeing a crowd of people watching a television. “It showed moving pictures; they were all jerky and blurry and had no colors at all,” yet antennas began to “sprout from the rooftops like weeds in the springtime.” It wasn’t long before the children stopped coming to hear his stories. They began to act like they didn’t know him and rudely shushed him for making too much noise with his clappers. Technology had changed the children’s expectations of entertainment, their attitudes toward elders, and their beliefs in what was important in life. Jiichan recalled one boy, a poor boy, who claimed not to like television. He wanted to hear Jiichan’s stories, so Jiichan told one last story, “Little One Inch.” “That was the last time I saw that boy. That was the last day I was a kamishibai man.” The illustration shows Jiichan’s back as the boy runs away, leaving Jiichan alone, never to tell stories again.

Suddenly, the illustrations change back to the original style with an older Jiichan still standing in the same position as his younger self from his memories. Voices are calling out, “I was that boy!” and “We grew up with your stories!” From all around him, people dressed in a variety of clothing began to clap and beg for their favorites. He gave a young man with a camera candy, “Just like the old days!” When he got home, Baachan was waiting amidst traditional Japanese furniture, dressed in a kimono, and watching the evening news on a story about the kamishibai man. “Will you be going out tomorrow?” she asks. “Umm, yes. And the day after.” “Then you’ll need more sweets.” She shuts off the television as we should shut off ours. We are left hanging on a cliff, wondering if Jiichan will be able to continue successfully as the kamishibai man in today’s world.

Japanese folklore scholar Tara McGowan includes an afterword that adds more historical background to the art of kamishibai for the reader. “Eventually kamishibai as a street-performance art all but disappeared. The artists...turned to more lucrative pursuits,...but they never forgot their roots in kamishibai,” just as Allen Say never forgot his roots, successfully blending a modern art style with the kamishibai style to create an unforgettable tale from his past in Kamishibai Man.

Review excerpts:
Booklist starred (September 15, 2005) “The quietly dramatic, beautifully evocative tale contains a cliffhanger of its own, and it exquisite art, in the style of Kamishibai picture cards, will attract even the most jaded kid away from the TV to enjoy a good, good book.” (Gr 1-3)

Horn Book (November/December 2005) “Say’s paintings are lovely: eloquent characterization, evocative landscapes, and, for the memory sequence, a more freely drawn style that recalls the vanished art form he celebrates.”

Kirkus Review (October 15, 2005) “Say effectively incorporates two illustration styles here-lovely soft watercolors and a more cartoonish style for flashbacks to the heyday of kamishibai. A fascinating window on a bygone art form.” (6-10)

Library Media Connection (March 2006) “Sparse text, eloquent in its simplicity, poignantly leads readers deeper into the story line.... Lustrous watercolors provide cultural insights into Japan’s households and cities. Readers will pause to carefully examine the detailed illustrations, which extend the text.”

Publishers Weekly (August 22, 2005) “Say’s gift is to multiply themes without struggling under their weight. Aging, cultural change, the way humans seem to lose warmth with technological advances-he gestures toward all of these while keeping the lens tightly focused on the kamishibai man.” (Ages 4-8)

School Library Journal (October 1, 2005) “Say’s distinctive style and facial expressions are especially touching.... The power of the story and the importance of the storyteller are felt in this nostalgic piece that makes readers think about “progress.”” (Gr 1-5)

2006 ALA Notable Children’s Book
2006 Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award
2006 Eloise Jarvis McGraw Award for Children’s Literature Nominee
2005 Parent’s Choice Gold Award
2005 Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year

Use kamishibai with your students or your own children. There are a number of resources available to purchase, or you can create your own. The Kamishibi Classroom: Engaging Multiple Literacies Through the Art of “Paper Theater” by Tara McGowan, a noted Japanese folklore scholar, includes step by step instructions to develop this interactive teaching tool to use across the curriculum (2010). Kamishibai Story Theater: The Art of Picture Telling by storyteller Dianne De las Casas (2006) presents adaptations of twenty-five folktales from Asia with tips and suggestions for classroom use. Manga Kamishibai: the Art of Japanese Paper Theater by Eric Peter Nash (2009) offers interested adults a historical background of kamishibai through current use with manga plus several full-length stories.

Several websites provide information and supplies to get started in kamishibai. Kamishibai for Kids at provides a history, how to use, teacher’s guide, literacy information, resources, and more. An interesting article “Raising literate kids the kamishibai way” can be found in the Education in Japan Community Blog at Storycard Theater at which received Dr. Toy’s 10 Best Creative Products Winner offers kamishibai products for purchase.


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