Houghton Mifflin, 2009.
Never underestimate how far-reaching a childhood fascination can be! Little Erika is entranced by an old, Japanese landscape print on her grandparents’ wall and states, “I want to go there when I grow up.” Her determination carries her through university to Japan to work as a teacher. She knows what she is looking for and it’s not to be found in the high-tech atmosphere of modern Tokyo, nor in the crowds of a more historic city.
Erika knows she’s on the right track when she ends up on an island, surrounded by “Forests and hills and green mountains... just the right background for a little house...” Aki, a fellow-teacher, offers to show her the island and they spend the week-ends exploring together. Since he isn’t aware of Erika’s quest, he doesn’t understand the significance of a certain, small teahouse – he only knows that he is unhappy when she stops taking bicycle trips with him. We readers are kept in the dark too - but there is a very special reason , and the dénouement of this modern-day fairytale will reveal whether or not Erika’s dreams come true.
There are sparkles of humor - Erika doesn’t even hang around for her graduation party but sets off on her journey, still wearing her mortar board, while her friends look on in dismay at her precipitous departure: but they are all in the shade and she is stepping into the light. After all the years of preparation, her quest proper has finally begun. Like in all good fairytales, Erika has a helping-hand - though the fixer here is no fairy-godmother but the teaching agency, which she contacts by phone.
Wide perspectives and plays of light and shade, as well as perfectly communicated body-language and emotions make this the feast for the eyes we have come to expect from Say’s work. There are cultural inferences too, which, though incidental to the story, convey a sense of integrity and which will fascinate and remain with young readers. In a sea of people at Tokyo station, we can pick Erika out because she is the only person looking up; we catch an intriguing glimpse of a traditional festival; and the elegance and timeless ritual of the traditional tea-ceremony is exquisitely portrayed.
Say has indeed produced another masterpiece - a perfect synthesis of words and pictures, in which he conveys a wealth of meaning in uncomplicated, well-honed language, both verbal and pictorial. This gentle, contemporary fairytale deserves to become a classic.