A LITTLE LIBRARY - Japanese picture book a labor of love

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Cover of In the Meadow by Yukiko Kato

Just before Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to order picture books for the Whitman College Bookstore's open house on Dec. 1.

I paged through reviews of newly published works and brought in everything that seemed promising.

When the box arrived, I opened it as if it were a birthday present. The shipment did not disappoint.

First, there were two colorful board books by Martine Perrin. Then came "Stuck," a wildly implausible visual romp by Oliver Jeffers. Next was J. Klassen's "I Want My Hat Back," with old-fashioned illustrations that may hold simultaneous appeal for traditionalists and hipsters.

There were holiday books too. Carefully, I unfolded the beautiful white pop-up architecture of "Chanukah Lights," a masterpiece by Michael J. Rosen and Robert Sabuda. And I admired the fresh traditionalism of the "Story of Christmas" as portrayed by Pamela Dalton.

But though ‘tis the season to review a holiday story-or at least a winter story-the unexpected treasure this shipment held for me was "In the Meadow," written by Yukiko Kato and illustrated by Komako Sakai.

It's spring or even summer in the pages of "In the Meadow," in which a tiny Japanese girl in a white sunhat follows a butterfly into a meadow. Separated from her parents and momentarily lost in the tall grass, she smells the "minty" foliage and feels the wind on her face.

The meadow is a "green sea" surrounding her. And just when the meadow might become scary, the little girl's smiling mother finds her.

In the Meadow is a clearly a labor of love. According to the blurb on the dust jacket, the author "has loved nature, insects, and wild animals since childhood," while translator Yuki Kaneko is "an aspiring urban naturalist currently studying botany."

Kato's writing, even in translation, is ever conscious of the sights and sounds of nature.

Sakai's illustrations complete the impression that this slim picture book is a personally felt tribute to nature's beauty. These delicate acrylic and oil pencil drawings have a homemade, almost unfinished feel, far from the slick graphic design of many of-the-minute picture books.

Sakai depicts the meadow itself with various levels of detail - some leaves are individually drawn with pencil and filled in with color.

Others are painted with delicate strokes without a penciled outline, and still other foliage is simply suggested by patches of green paint. This sketch-like quality emphasizes the breadth of the meadow and focuses on the feeling of being among the plants.

As little Yu-chan explores the bird-filled meadow, her delicate features and thin ponytail drift in this "green sea," but are never swallowed up.

The simplicity of the story might suggest the book suffers from an absence of plot. But for this author/illustrator/translator/publisher team, it's clear that the full sensory experience of nature is a worthy subject.

Environmentally conscious parents will enjoy this ode to nature without the heavy-handed lessons that often fill other children's books. Perhaps the thought is that if children loved the natural world through their experiences in it, the desire to care for the world would come naturally. But this is just a guess, as there is no preaching within these pages, simply wonder.

While I wouldn't call myself an outdoor enthusiast, I was fortunate to grow up picking berries and learning the names of trees. A walk through fall leaves still fills me with delight. This quiet, beautiful book is a worthy introduction to the natural world. It makes a lovely gift, in or out of season.

Zoey Smith works at the Whitman College Bookstore and is helping expand the children's book section. She can be reached at smithze@whitman.edu.

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