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  • The Elemental Art of Keizaburo Tejima
  • Gary D. Schmidt (bio)

The island of Hokkaido lies at the northernmost tip of Japan. It is a rugged island, with harsh weather and steep terrain. It is here that Keizaburo Tejima was born in 1935. And it is here that he has chosen to set his picture books.

For Tejima, Hokkaido is a setting that is free from human intrusion, an area in which the life cycles of the natural world proceed unhindered. His books portray birth, growth and maturation, death, and renewal in their unending cycle, suggesting that humanity too participates in that cycle. Despite the complexity of human society, all living beings experience the same simple, elemental cycles of life.

To portray those experiences, Tejima uses a tinted wood block technique, which he sometimes supplements with brushed on paint. This traditional Japanese form allows for a good deal of texture in solid blocks of color, as well as very strong, bold lines. As one of the few Japanese artists to be publishing children's literature in North America and as the only one to be working with this graphic technique, Tejima occupies a unique position.

But he is only beginning to be recognized in North America as a prominent author and illustrator, as five of his seven books, published in Japan in the early 1980s, have been available in North America only since 1986. Having won internal acclaim (Owl Lake won the Japan Prize for Outstanding Picture Books in 1983 and Fox's Dream won special mention with the Fiera di Bologna Graphic Prize in 1986), Tejima is accumulating North American awards as well: both Owl Lake and Fox's Dream became ALA Notable Books upon their American publication, and the New York Times listed Fox's Dream as one of the 1987's ten best illustrated books.

One of Tejima's purposes in his work is to illustrate the wildlife of Hokkaido and to show that island's natural beauty. His narrative, reminiscent of the controlled poetry of a haiku in its starkness and apparent simplicity, evokes a quiet, almost hushed tone in the face of the illustrations, as though the beauty of the natural world itself is its own story, its own commentary. Within this world, bound by the sea, isolated, wild [End Page 77] in its interior, Tejima pictures a family dealing with the most basic aspects of life. Here the family isolation is seen as a natural—though not necessarily pleasant—phenomenon, and it is in this context that Tejima defines the essential nature of a family by stripping away everything but the most elemental bonds.

Owl Lake follows a family of owls as they provide food for their youngest member. They are bound by the island of Hokkaido and further isolated by a ring of mountains and a gentle lake, which echo the sounds of the hungry family to the father owl. The Bears' Autumn pictures a slightly older family, whose Mother Bear teaches her son to feed himself. The cub goes through a rite of passage as he learns to hunt for salmon beneath the water. Woodpecker Forest similarly narrates the emerging self-confidence of a young woodpecker, who learns to live by himself in the forest. Fox's Dream deals with a solitary fox who, in the deadness of mid-winter, recalls his own mother and siblings. The book ends with the fox meeting a vixen, and the narrator's announcing that "Soon it will be spring. " Both suggest the beginning of a new family. Swan Sky, written soon after Owl Lake, deals with a swan family's commitment to a dying member. The family denies even its powerful instinct to migrate to support the one, but after its death they follow their instincts, eventually realizing that even for them, "Spring has come again."

Tejima's characters encounter the most basic elements of life: complete dependence upon one's parents, a growing maturity and enlargement of one's world, the movement from childhood to adulthood, the establishment of a new family, death. And at each encounter, it is the family—whether physically present or recalled—that supports the character. The primary experiences of life...


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