Some picture books become lifelong friends, renewing themselves according to the reader's age and experiences or the changing times. The late Yoko Sano, who died in 2010, produced more than a few such works, including Hyakuman-kai ikita neko (The Cat That Had a Million Lives).
In the summer of 2011, I re-read Sano's Umarete kita kodomo (The Child Who Was Born). Although there are quite a few picture books that I've revisited repeatedly over the years, I hadn't picked this title up again since first reading it more than ten years before. Something about it didn't sit quite right.
"There was a child who didn't want to be born, so he wasn't born," begins the story, immediately delivering a jolt. Whether or not a child will be born is something we usually think of as an adult choice, but here it is treated as the child's. And the child possesses a clear will in the matter?a desire not to be born.
How, then, does the story present this child who hasn't been born? The unborn child spends his days roaming about space, going from star to star. Then one day he comes to Earth. A lion roars, but he isn't scared; a mosquito bites him, but it doesn't itch. No matter what happens, "he hasn't been born, so it doesn't affect him."
The unborn child's world is free of sensations and concerns. The author depicts this disembodied world in somewhat crude line drawings using only red and green ink?reminiscent of anaglyph images that appear to be in 3D when viewed with special glasses. Page after page continues with pictures that make you want to blink your eyes, that grate a little on your nerves.
Come to think of it, you could say that all of Sano's picture books have something "grating" about them. Though she employs the simple language expected in the picture-book medium, where readers tend to have their guards down, she doesn't shy from addressing issues most would prefer to leave unmentioned. In a field dominated by books that take a warm-and-fuzzy approach aimed at selling peace of mind, her works are reliable standouts in this regard. The text of The Cat That Had a Million Lives is peppered with the words "death" and "hate," which are supposed to be no-no's, and in the present book, the drawings aid and abet the text in creating a distinctly "grating" work.
The unborn child visiting the Earth is unfazed by the dog that follows him or the little girl he meets?even when the dog bites the girl and she bursts into tears. But as he watches the girl's mother bandage her wound, he is filled with a new desire. "Bandage! Bandage!" he cries out, and at that moment he is born. "Mother!" he exclaims.
The newly born child busily begins crying when he's hurt, feeling hungry at the smell of fresh bread, scratching itchy mosquito bites, and laughing heartily into the wind. "Being born wears you out," he tells his mother on the final page. She gives him a hug and a kiss and tucks him into bed for a sound, dreamless sleep. The end.
So whatever else we may have to go through, isn't it nice that we've all been born into a world where we can feel, we might happily conclude as we close the book. But something still doesn't sit quite right. Why do the same disembodied anaglyph drawings continue even after the child is born?
In the program for an exhibit of the decade's picture books held at the Chihiro Museum in 1999, Sano wrote, "Children should yank all the flowers they want. At least until the day they realize for themselves how wicked it is to tear such beautiful petals apart. Let them learn in their bones the natural desire to hold beauty in their little hands. Childhood should be filled with up-close and personal encounters with the mysteries of life."
She had met a girl who responded to the mention of flowers with an automatic, "Mustn't touch!" and was alarmed at the prospect of a generation without hands-on experiences.
"A picture book offers us an enjoyable simulated experience," she continued. "But if you come to it without first having touched and stroked the real world with your own hands, it can't simulate anything for you no matter how wonderful a book it might be."
Sano was faced with a paradox. To dissolve the sense of crisis only within the picture book is to offer an empty illusion. It may be seen as a measure of her fidelity to this principle that she persisted with the same drawing style even after the child was born.
This still leaves the question of what we are to make of the first and last drawings. The unborn child drifting in space and the born child at rest in a dreamless sleep are drawn in a different style from the rest of the book. Line drawings penned in blue are illumined with soft yellow light and accented with a few faint dashes of pink. More seems to be at play here than a mere opening and closing effect: there is a sense of tranquility, pregnant with depth.
Could it be that the child is unborn in the biological sense only in the very first panel, and from the second panel onward, when he arrives on Earth?up to the point when he cries out, "Bandages!"?he is merely lacking in sensation?
As thoughts of those who have gone over to the other side?a close friend, Sano herself, the cat that had a million lives?overlap in my mind with the tranquil blue images, it occurs to me that a fulfilled life and a fulfilling death might be two sides of the same coin.
Picture books take on different meanings for different people and in different times. It's not so easy in today's world for us to extend a reassuring hand to children yet to be born and say, "No worries. Come on and join us." But it is reassuring to realize that every one of us living on earth is "a child who was born." May we all live a fulfilled life.
The Child Who Was Born
Story and art by Yoko Sano; Poplar Publishing Co., 1991
(This article originally appeared in Tento-mushi magazine, published by Credit Saison Co., Ltd.)