Although it’s February and feels like winter — at least in my part of the country — February actually marks the beginning of spring in many East Asian countries. The Asian calendar is particularly sensitive to changes of season. When I think of writing about the seasons in poetry, the first form that comes to mind is the haiku and the most famous practitioner of its art, Basho.
Grass Sandals: The Travels of Basho by Dawnine Spivak, illustrated by Demi, is a delightful picture book that captures the essence of the wandering poet for children. In it, Basho is featured as a character embarking on a journey. Upon his hat, he writes: “Hat, I will soon show you cherry blossoms” and sets off. Of course, Basho has his adventures — not of the swash-buckling kind, mind you — and he records them in haiku. He wades in rivers, sits under ancient trees, sleeps on grass pillows, and swims in the ocean. This meandering but mindful wandering is presented on each page with images, haikus, and Chinese characters — kanji, as they are known in Japanese — for the most salient natural element presented in the poem. So in addition to being a good book about a famous historical figure, Grass Sandals teaches a little bit of kanji as well!
Illustrator Demi has drawn wonderful images of the traveling Basho on a background of washi — Japanese paper — to great effect. (You can see more of Demi’s artwork in the PaperTigers gallery.) The genial nature of the poet is well reflected in his expressions. Grass Sandals is a good introduction to the poet and the form, and a lovely Asian way of welcoming in a season that might not otherwise feel like spring at all!