Mark Reibstein, illustrated by Ed Young, Japanese haiku translated by Nanae Tamura,
Little, Brown, 2008.
Wabi Sabi is a cat whose name has a very special meaning in Japanese culture. In an attempt to understand this "special meaning", she sets off on a journey and discovers that it is very hard to pin it down to a few, specific words: but by the end she has reached an understanding of the concept – as will the book’s young or not-so-young readers/ listeners. Mark Reibstein’s gentle prose interspersed with his own compact, apposite haikus and Ed Young’s breathtaking artwork combine to create a masterpiece. Its apparent simplicity belies the richness of each of its components, which means that the book can be approached from many angles: and it is this complexity which makes it a picture-book to be enjoyed by people of all ages.
Reibstein has incorporated allusions both to the history of wabi sabi and the heritage of haiku poetry (also given more explicitly in the afterword); and subtly inserted into each double-page spread, there is a Japanese haiku, which provides an added layer of meaning. Reference at the end reveals these to be by either Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), or Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), considered to be among the greatest writers of haiku. What a superb way to introduce the work of these poets! Rascal the snooty dog is very condescending towards little Wabi Sabi – but gets his come-uppance in Basho’s caustic “when speaking/ a chill on the lips:/ autumn wind”.
Ed Young’s stunning artwork encapsulates the notion of wabi sabi. In his collages, he has brought together photographs and slightly scruffy scraps of paper, as well as imperfect but beautiful leaves and grass, not to mention whole pine branches. On her way home, Wabi Sabi comes across Ginkakuji, the “Silver Temple”, “because she did not hurry” (a lesson in there for us all). She finds it very beautiful, even though “there was nothing silver there” – and Young’s collage made up of scraps of brown and red paper, most notably. brown parcel paper, is indeed very beautiful.
The empathy which both Reibstein and Young have brought to Wabi Sabi emanates from every page. The perfect antidote to consumerism, this special, nearly-perfect book speaks to young people - in a simple, wabi sabi way that will serve them for life - of the beauty to be found in not-necessarily-perfect things. What a concept... and what a book!