ISBN 978-0-316-20337-1 $16.99
Reviewed from galleys R* 4-7 yrs
Yoshio is a city boy right down to his bones, reveling in the cacophony just outside his door (“Toyko was like a symphony hall”). When it rains on the way to school, so much the better, as city noise merges with the patter of raindrops on his umbrella, the squishing of his boots, and the merriment of his own giggles. Then a new sound creeps out of the din and Yoshio traces it to a gray-haired, kimonoed koto player tuning up under a wooden canopy, a tiny island of calm and dry amid the crush of passing umbrellas. The boy lingers to add this musical sound to his sonic collection, but when he politely asks the player about her own favorite sound, he’s surprised at her response: “The most beautiful sound . . . is the sound of ma, of silence.” So begins Yoshio’s quest—to track down even a fleeting moment of silence.
The Tokyo setting in which he searches may be novel to most young Americans, but they’ll agree he’s looking in all the right places. However, even in the most well-regulated classroom, somebody is always discreetly rustling around; even in the deserted park (or in Yoshio’s case, a bamboo grove), the wind stirs the vegetation; within lulls in dinner conversation, there is still clicking and chewing and swallowing; in the bathtub, water swirls and drips. When your own home quiets, there are neighbors with late-night radios and early morning yapping dogs. It is when Yoshio is the first to arrive at school, settling undisturbed into his desk with a favorite book, that he becomes aware of the absence of sound: “Peaceful, like the garden after it snowed. Like feather-stuffed futons drying in the sun.” And he also realizes that ma has been everywhere all along, beneath and between and before and after the pings of everyday sounds are minuscule moments of quiet. You just have to listen.
Although the text is a smooth, self-contained bit of storytelling, Kuo’s digitally colored pen drawings perform glorious double duty, introducing the bustling street scenes and orderly private interiors of Yoshio’s beloved Tokyo, and translating the concept of ma into literal and figurative imagery. Kuo indulges in posting ads for her favorite retailers on the dense urban signage (Muji, Mitsukoshi, Uniqlo); tucking Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World into the hand of one pedestrian; costuming another as a lolita with knee-hi’s, fascinator and stuffed toy dangling from her shoulder bag; strapping a germ mask on a pot-bellied gent on the bullet-train platform. As the mainstreamers and outliers rub shoulders in the crowd, the koto player’s relative isolation just steps away from the crush takes on added meaning as the embodiment of ma, the silence that can be identified and appreciated by a sensitive seeker. When Yoshio’s climactic Aha! moment arrives, Kuo designs a protective ring of nothing around [End Page 3] him, pushing away his thoughts of noisy urbanites, and then follows that scene with a more profound depiction of Yoshio and his school desk set against a completely blank background. As the audience ponders their own experience of silence, they can also conduct a visual hunt for yin/yang imagery embedded in the illustrations.
Author’s and illustrator’s notes do exactly what such notes are supposed to do—offer something additional to think about. Goldsaito speaks of her father’s acquaintance with Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, whose attentiveness to silence within music inspired this book. Kuo remarks on the fun she had incorporating contemporary cultural references into her artwork, perhaps launching a fleet of internet searches. Enterprising librarians or teachers might want to pass around instruments for a group “performance” of John Cage’s 4’33” to extend a blessedly peaceful storytime. (See p. 25 for publication information.)