of the Center for Children's Books:
A Wider Perspective
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Guri and Gura
While living in Japan, I met Guri and Gura, Nakagawa and Yamawaki's famous Japanese mouse protagonists, at the Kijo Picture Book Village, a family library retreat located in a mountainous rural area of southwest Kyushu. I am familiar with book art exhibits in the U.S., which attract professionals such as teachers, librarians, authors, and illustrators, but here it was ordinary families who had driven miles of tangled roads to see the original Guri and Gura illustrations. Adults and children together squealed with delight as they gathered in the exhibit room, moving from illustration to illustration as the children told the stories from memory.
Unlike Hello Kitty, Guri and Gura are virtually unknown in the U.S. The intrepid mouse pair star in no television cartoons, nor are there slippers, purses, hair accessories, or other merchandise to make them a marketing rather than a literary phenomenon. Instead, this friendship series has achieved its quiet, solid popularity in Japanese libraries and bookstores over a period of four decades (the first title appeared in 1963); you might consider Guri and Gura the Japanese counterparts of Lobel's Frog and Toad. Now Tuttle Publishing introduces these enduring Japanese stars to the English-speaking world through seven newly translated books.
The first book of this series, Guri and Gura, gives an idea of the flavor of these simple but effective books. Here the two mice trudge through the forest, looking for something to cook and eat ("And what do you think we like to do best? Cook and eat. Eat and cook"). They "walk down the path until lo and behold, in the middle of the path they see a gigantic…EGG!" An egg so large is a little difficult for two small mice to transport, so they decide to bake a cake with it on the spot, requiring the fetching of ingredients--and "a pan so big it won't fit in their knapsacks." As their efforts begin to pay off and the smell of baking wafts through the woods, "all the animals in the woods soon gather round." Fortunately for the hungry critters, Guri and Gura aren't "stingy or mean," willingly sharing bites of their finished product with their forest neighbors (and then gleefully turning the huge eggshell into a mouse-sized vehicle). The English text is somewhat more choppy and stiff than its Japanese counterpart, but the favorite topic of food, combined with an inventive and adventurous plot, will entice young listeners. Yamawaki's illustrations, clean watercolors with perky ink lines, are sometimes playfully disproportionate (the flamingo is bigger than the bear), and the lively characters balanced against the generous white space provide an eye-pleasing feast.
The tasty food motif and repeated elements make this a natural draw for listener participation in a storytime, especially with its theme of sharing. There's an additional merit to these titles, however. Kids can connect with other cultures in lots of ways; English-speaking children can learn lists of Japanese vocabulary words or practice origami folds, but they can also immerse themselves into the fictional forest world of Guri and Gura, sharing the experience of their Japanese agemates rather than just looking at it from the outside. No matter where they're from, children who know this first title of the series by heart will gleefully participate, whether it's by screaming "EGG!" or its Japanese language equivalent, "TAMAGO!", when the occasion arises.