Interview with author and illustrator Sunny Seki
by Marjorie Coughlan*
Sunny Seki was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan and moved to the US when he was twenty-four years old. He ran his own photographic studio for many years before recently devoting himself to creating books for children. His first picture book, The Tale of the Lucky Cat, won a NAPPA Honor Award in 2007 and his latest book, Yuko-chan and the Daruma Doll has been selected for the 2012 Spirit of PaperTigers Book Set.
Sunny is also a renowned shadow puppeteer. He lives in Los Angeles, California with his wife Judy and their 9 children.
Can you tell us about your path to becoming a picture-book author/illustrator?
I grew up in the chaos of post-WWII Japan, when everything was limited: food, clothes, and even picture books. It was during this impoverished time that I was given a birthday gift that would influence me for the rest of my life - my very first picture book, and it was my treasure.
From the time I was very small I also loved painting, but was not able to own a crayon set with lots of colors. Instead, I had to learn how to mix the few colors that I had. Nevertheless, with such minimal materials I was able to participate in my second grade drawing contest, and I was so proud when I won first place. My dream prize was a big box of crayons, full of various colors.
As I grew older, the desire to become a painter became stronger and stronger. However, my father believed that very few painters could survive as professionals, and that therefore I should keep drawing as a hobby. When it was time for college, he said that he would not pay if I majored in drawing, so I studied photography instead. In retrospect, I appreciate his advice, because after I came to the United States I was able to operate a successful photo studio.
More than thirty years flew by, and the studio allowed me to support my growing family. Still, I could not resist the urge to polish my illustration skills, so I invested in night classes at the Pasadena Art Center College of Design. Throughout these years I went to art exhibits, and always took my children with me.
Before I knew it, the digital era was taking over the photographic industry. I saw that anyone could copy my work for free, and that to continue operating I would have to buy new equipment. So I started to think about other art forms that I could pursue. I had devoted all my time to photography, so I figured it was time to try something new. "What about creating picture books?" I thought.
My first step was to gain industry knowledge by joining SCBWI. Here I learned a lot about creating books and getting published. My early stories ranged from talking dogs to blonde teenage witches; however, these were not published. With all the competition, I discovered that I should focus on my strong point, which is my rich Japanese heritage. So I asked myself, "If Americans like teddy bears, what do Japanese like?" Then one day my son asked me about the Lucky Catstatue, and this inspired my first book, The Tale of the Lucky Cat, which was published in 2007. Since then I have released two more children’s books based on Japanese folktales.
Your published stories are rooted in Japanese folklore. Were you brought up with these stories as a child? Did you tell them to your own children?
When I was a kid, there was no TV, and I didn't have many books either. On the other hand, I had plenty of time to hear stories from older people. These people did not base their stories on folklore, but rather on how they lived when they were children. For example, I loved hearing them recount how they needed fishing line, so they would steal hair from the tails of horses, and then get chased by the owners! I also remember how my friends and I would tell scary stories on hot summer nights so that we could get cool without using a fan! Indeed, telling stories has always been an important part of my life.
While I was studying photography in college, I used to travel all over Japan. I enjoyed listening to the local tales that older people would tell, so I always made it a point to stay in the homes of farmers or fishermen.
A few years later I started to tell these stories to my children at bedtime. To make them more realistic, I would modify the characters or names so that my children could identify with them better. I would include some Japanese folklore, but it was always mixed with settings from our home or neighborhood. My children listened attentively, and eventually started to ask questions that would cause me to create a new story. Sometimes I couldn't answer their questions, so I had to research to find the answers. After many years of watching me tell stories, my wife suggested that I should become an author of children's books. Although nine children is a big audience, she said that my stories could reach audiences all over the world. This is the background of my story-telling journey. Through all of this, I like to think of myself as a carrier of tradition. However, I don’t just repeat the same stories: I update them with a new twist.
What come first for you, the words or the images?
For me, it is like riding a bicycle. The front wheel is the images and the rear wheel is the words. You could say that I push myself to the limit to climb the mountain with my bicycle. It may sound strange, but I get ideas faster than images or words. Then the bicycle becomes the vehicle that carries me. However, there are times when certain images come to me, and they become the reason to make a book. At other times, I have important words to express. The images and words are both important to me, and I cannot leave them in the hands of others. After I joined the industry, I was amazed that there are so many unicyclists!
How would you describe your artistic style and influences?
My style has resulted from a variety of influences. Of course, great masterpieces have always amazed me. However, I have always been more fascinated by folk art from different regions. Even before technique, folk art has a distinct passion, and I love this. I see this art form as primitive or unfinished, but I like the warmth that it emits.
Another influence for me is ukiyo-e, or "pictures from the floating world." The Japanese created this form between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, peaking in the eighteenth century. Unlike the oil on canvas so characteristic of European art, ukiyo-e features images carved onto wood blocks and then printed on paper with a type of watercolor. The result is very sharp but sensitive. I am Japanese, so ukiyo-e is very special to me. When I visited the French home of Monet, I was amazed to see how many ukiyo-e prints he had collected. Ukiyo-e had obviously impressed a world-renowned impressionist!
I was a professional portrait photographer for nearly forty years, so naturally the photographic perspective has also appeared in my illustrations. Finally, I have also been influenced by the popular manga style. Therefore, I would say my illustrations are a combination of ukiyo-e, manga, and photography.
I use a variety of media in my work, and I plan to use more in the future. And rather than solely "artistic," I prefer readers to see my books as "kid-friendly." I will be very happy if a child sees one of my illustrations and thinks, "This is me!"
While Daruma dolls exist, I believe that you invented the story of the little blind girl Yuko-chan, the eponymous young heroine of your most recent book. Is that right? What inspired you to tell the story of Daruma dolls in this way?
First, I have to explain that Japan has experienced all kinds of natural disasters, and through all of these we have successfully sought and achieved recovery. The eruption of Mount Asama is factual, and it is true that the Daruma doll is a byproduct of this disaster. Therefore, I thought that introducing this invention might inspire victims from any type of misfortune to realize that they also can recover. Coincidentally, this book was being printed when last year’s big earthquake hit Japan.
Why I chose Yuko-chan as a heroine is a very interesting question. From my extensive research to determine the roots of folk tales, cultural icons or related toys, I have noticed that multiple individuals have been credited with the origins. However, it is always difficult to find mention of their specific names. And since Japan has always been a male-oriented country, it would immediately be dismissed that any female could have taken an integral role in the creation of any good invention. Finally, the possibility that she was blind would be deemed very improbable.
With this mind, when I heard that a Zen monk named Togaku had invented the Daruma doll in 1783, I became skeptical. To me, it did not seem realistic that a monk would invent this doll. I believe that there may have been someone else involved behind the scenes. I also had unanswered questions about why the dolls were blind.
Therefore, I wanted to create a story that combined a historically documented event with ideas traditionally accepted in Japan. It took me a while to formulate my ideas, and I felt like I was digging a tunnel to find someone buried alive! In the end I finally ran into Yuko-chan, who became my imaginary helper. I don’t call this "fabrication," but rather a reasonable "possibility." With a character like Yuko-chan, the story can become more rational to readers today.
What research did you do for your depiction of Yuko-chan?
During my research I found that there is one organization of blind people who have complained about the suggestion that drawing in the Daruma doll’s eyeballs would bring success. Through my story I wanted to resolve this issue. My thoughts turned to my wife’s friend Christy, who is blind. One time we had visited her house and I lost my key. As soon as she heard that I was looking for it, she calmly said, “Oh, you left it on the kitchen counter.” She had remembered the sound when I had left it there! I was so impressed with her keen sense of hearing and her positive attitude. So as I was mentally developing my story, I thought that I could tie together the lesson from Christy’s story with the connection of drawing eyes for motivation. However, I wasn’t sure how I could incorporate these ideas, so I set them aside.
There are many stories about the origin of the Daruma doll, but I chose to base mine on the folklore from Takasaki, where this doll was born. I also read about the past, when there was a publicly supported society of blind women called goze, who played musical instruments. Furthermore, I read how it was not uncommon for children with disabilities to be left at temples in the care of the monks.
Still, I did not have a formulated story until I actually went to Takasaki and visited the Daruma Temple. Here I found that the temple has been conducting children’s Zen classes for hundreds of years. Then while looking through the oldest building, I was surprised to see many dust-covered musical instruments.
Next I went to a souvenir shop. Of course there were numerous Daruma dolls, but I also saw locally made water containers and other handicrafts formed from interestingly shaped gourds. I was now tired from walking all day, so I sat down to wait for the next train. Nearby was a cute Shiba dog tied to a tree. While I was petting it, a young girl came out and took the dog with her. As they disappeared down the country road, I noticed that the girl was limping slightly. Then suddenly I got my inspiration for the story. Every piece that I had been collecting now made sense: Christy’s lesson, the blind women, the children in the temple, the Zen classes, the musical instruments, the gourds in the shop, and even the dog! My jigsaw puzzle had been completed!
Your illustrations here and indeed in your other stories are packed with cultural references, some of which are also highlighted in the books’ back matter. You have said of yourself as a writer that your job is to tie the knot between East and West. Can you say a bit about that? How important do you think it is for young readers to encounter diversity in the books they read?
Countries are far apart and cultures are so different, and we know that even within the same culture there can be separation by political walls. In creating my stories, I hope to make tiny holes in these walls. Cultures are like water, and if they can pass through these holes, cultures can be connected in a continual flow.
A folktale is a good tool to connect cultures because it extends beyond real time. So in my stories, I focus on interesting people or icons, and then use my illustrations to reinforce reality. I am very particular about the historical accuracy, detail, and design of clothing, buildings, and all other aspects of the image, although I do paint my characters a little bit fancier than how they looked at that time. In addition, I clearly show Japan’s four distinct seasons. I use all these effects to attract the readers’ eyes and curiosity. Through all of this, it is my goal that they will unconsciously come to feel a connection to a culture that had been distant to them before.
Finally, bilingual or trilingual education is more important than ever. I am happy to share that The Tale of the Lucky Cat has been translated into nine languages. Two of my books are bilingual, and I chose this format so that my stories could cross borders. In this way, my readers learn about folklore, culture, and language.
Ultimately, I hope that my books are not just stories, but actual guidebooks that will lead children to a greater understanding of Japan. I want Western readers to realize that the East is not as far away as they had thought. This can show that diversity is beautiful, and that all cultures can truly flow in the same stream.
In your book The Last Kappa of Old Japan, Norihei, a Japanese boy, helps a kappa called Kyu, and they become friends. Kappas are often depicted in Japanese folklore as mischievous or even malignant, and yet those are not traits that emerge in your story. How did you reconcile these different characteristics?
This is another meaningful question. When I was living in Japan, I never thought about those things! However, after I experienced a different culture, I started to reflect on what I had always taken for granted. The kappa is one of those mythological creatures that can remain in the fog forever if you do not search for it.
Until I conducted my own research, I did not know that kappas from Northern Japan are reddish, while the ones in the south are greenish. I also found that there are so many shrines dedicated to the kappa! However, I do not think – and I did not read - that kappas are extinct, despite the many rumors or claims of discovered mummies. I do know that they live as spirits or fairies to maintain the water world.
Although the mentality is changing, parents are still known to use the mythology of kappa as a warning sign to children. For example, if children try to enter a dangerous watery ravine or whirlpool, parents will warn that “the kappa will hurt you!” I am sure that when parents talk about kappas they describe them as realistically as possible so that their children will fear them and be safe. In the past there were no lifeguards, so a strong cautionary word from a parent was certainly effective. I’m also sure that an imaginative child might have asked, “Daddy, what do kappas eat?” And the answer might have been, “Well, son, they love cucumbers!” I can almost visualize their faces.
So the kappa is something like an angel with two faces. To me, what is important is that kappas are characterized as guardians for our lives. Actually, Japanese culture and folklore is full of these friends. Other examples are the oni, tengu, dragon, and even today’s Totoro!
Although the story is set in the past, it has an underlying ecological message that resonates in the present. Was this intentional on your part?
I believe that we humans can coexist with nature. But from watching Japan over the years, I fear that environmental changes are not going in the right direction. For instance, the 2011 tsunami destroyed a nuclear power plant. This shows how people have become dependent on forms of technology that can ironically cause violent harm to nature. It also shows that economic benefits have taken precedence over preservation of the environment.
With the kappa, I am able to express to children that our natural resources are not unlimited, and so we have to use them wisely. As children start to wonder about the world, it is good to educate them about ways to make it a better and more peaceful place. For me, storytelling is a powerful way to do this.
Can you share with us some particularly special moments from when you share your stories with children?
For my presentations I wear a traditional happi-style jacket and sometimes enter from the back door, saying, "It took me a long time to get this country! What country am I in?" Children always like this. Later, I let volunteers from the audience wear one of the many kimonos that I have. They proceed to act out my stories with me while my wife reads and projects my illustrations on a screen. Both children and their parents have so much fun, and it makes great photo opportunities.
There are certain illustrations that appear in all of my books. Similar to Where's Waldo, I give a hint, and then it is always fun to watch the small competition as children try to be the first to find the hidden character! I hope that my books will not be at the mercy of a click on an electronic screen. I want children to take their time as they savor every page and discover many new things.
At one signing event I was particularly touched when a little girl bought my book. She said, "My sister has this book, but I want one for myself. So I'm buying one with my own money."
You are also a renowned shadow puppeteer. What first drew you to this form of story-telling?
I am sure that before picture books existed there was shadow puppetry. Even in the Ice Age, I can imagine parents telling their children stories by making shadows on the walls of their caves. It’s a very simple medium, where features such as skin color, gender, or nationality are not apparent. This allows the audience room to create their own interpretations.
On the other hand, today we have many distractions that get in the way of telling or reading stories. The telephone rings, or a text message comes in. And children can’t avoid their addiction to the computers and video games that tend to stifle all imagination or creativity. So I’ve found that shadow puppetry allows me to control all these circumstances, and tell the story from complete darkness and silence, much like in a movie theater. And the magic is created with one light (or candle) and my fingers.
However, I don’t read my books in this way. Our stage presentations engage the audience in different ways. First I start with a reading of one of my books, while the images are projected in PowerPoint. This way I can make the room dark, thus minimizing distractions. My shadow puppets appear later in the show, and they feature traditional Japanese folktales or folklore-based stories that I have created exclusively for that purpose.
I got my initial inspiration for shadow puppetry from my son, who was a member of the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry. One day I accompanied him to a shadow puppetry workshop, and I was hooked! Immediately the inspiration flowed, and I went home to create the puppets for my first show. Today I am the guild member, and I share my puppetry at their events as well. As a special opportunity, my shadow puppetry was featured on “What a Life!” – a two-minute spot on The Disney Channel.
I have to say that children take parents along roads that parents would otherwise never travel, and for me this has opened a world bigger than what I could ever have created for myself!
How have the two art forms of creating shadow puppets and illustration influenced each other in your work, do you think?
They are two sides of the same coin. Illustration provides detailed information, while shadow puppetry does the opposite. Less information provokes the viewer’s imagination. And since the shapes and movements are so simple, I can emphasize the story more. I am always amazed that even the simplest story can have such a strong impact with shadow puppets!
My books are already illustrated, so I do not adapt them to shadow puppets. Similarly, I don’t write text for the stories that I use for shadow puppets. My presentations usually consist of both reading and shadow puppetry, so the audience has an opportunity to utilize all aspects of their imagination.
You have nine children. How has fatherhood shaped you as a storyteller? Over the years, have you noticed a difference in the quality/number of multicultural books available to them growing up?
I cannot remember how many times my wife and I have been asked, "Are they all your kids? " And we have had to answer, "Yes, they are - same parents, no twins!" We used all available resources, especially from our local library. I have always encouraged use of the library, especially because it is available from our tax dollars. After a while we exhausted all the good books, so I had to make up my own stories to tell my children. Bedtime stories especially trained me to become a good storyteller. My kids often shared rooms, and some of them had heard the same story before - so I was forced to tell Part Two and Part Three to keep them satisfied. My children have always been my best critics. Often, the next morning they would tell me, “I knew that the story would end like that!” I then had to think ahead, to make the next story more interesting to their ears. So being a father definitely formed me as a storyteller!
Through these years I have noticed a multicultural growth in movies, toys, foods, and celebrations, and these themes have incorporated themselves into books. Some examples are Ninja Turtles, manga, Mulan, anime, and Power Rangers, and references to foods and customs. Therefore today’s children do have an increased perception of other cultures.
What are you working on at the moment? And your plans for the future?
I am currently working on a Japanese martial arts story. The terms samurai and ninja have become known all over the world, and readers are increasingly interested in learning about these topics. So in addition to my constant research of folklore, I am also studying famous Japanese warriors, their skills and mentality. I hold a black belt in Aikido, so I have personal experience that will help me as well. This new book is a work in progress, but like my Daruma story, I know that the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle will come together for me.
I still want to give birth to new folktales of Japan, and I want them to be translated into many different languages. I do not believe that Japanese folktales should be limited to only The Inch Boy or The Bamboo Princess!
If you could send Yuko-Chan and the Daruma Doll anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I would want to send my book to three special places. The first stop would be to countries suffering from disasters - either natural or manmade. Secondly I would like to send it to India –the birthplace of Daruma. He planted the seed for my story, and it would be my humble privilege to present this work to all the children of his native land. Finally, I would be overjoyed if my book could be delivered not just to a country, but also to people who have disabilities. If Yuko-Chan and the Daruma Doll could be transcribed into Braille, I would consider my job to be done.
I am certain that Daruma-san would happily roll over and over to meet children of all ages from all over the world!
*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Editor
Posted September 2012
back to top