Wabi Sabi

Mark Reibstein

Book - 2008

Wabi Sabi, a cat living in the city of Kyoto, learns about the Japanese concept of beauty through simplicity as she asks various animals she meets about the meaning of her name.

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Picture books
New York : Little, Brown 2008.
1st ed
Physical Description
unpaged : ill. ; 29 cm
Main Author
Mark Reibstein (-)
Other Authors
Ed Young (illustrator)
Review by New York Times Review

IN a long, distinguished career, Ed Young has often conveyed the depth of apparently simple stories through his illustrations. "Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story From China" (1989) won him a Caldecott Medal with its dramatic pictures (including a particularly fearsome wolf), creatively enhanced by the thematic use of light and shadow - which also resonates in his dedication: "To all the wolves of the world for lending their good name as a tangible symbol for our darkness." He added a dimension to the Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant with "Seven Blind Mice": Six mice, in rainbow colors, misconstrue the bits of the elephant they touch, but the seventh - white, like unrefracted light - explores the whole and grasps the truth. Like these stories, Mark Reibstein's "Wabi Sabi" - chosen this fall as a New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book - has a familiar scenario: a cat named Wabi Sabi seeks her name's meaning, elicits various responses and comes home wiser. From P.D. Eastman's "Are You My Mother?" to J.R.R. Tolkien's hobbits, it's a reliable formula, famously summarized in T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets": "We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." But while the plot of "Wabi Sabi" is simple, its purpose is demanding: to present an elusive concept with origins "in ancient Chinese ways of understanding and living, known as Taoism and Zen Buddhism." As Reibstein puts it: "Wabi sabi is a way of seeing the world that is at the heart of Japanese culture. It finds beauty and harmony in what is simple, imperfect, natural, modest and mysterious. ... It may best be understood as a feeling, rather than as an idea." Remarkably, Reibstein and Young capture the essence of all of this with clarity, elegance and a kind of indirection that seems intrinsic to the subject. The book's structure is intricate. Young responds to three different strands of text. The first - the prose narrative - is direct and informal ("It had never occurred to her before that wabi sabi was anything more than her name"). Then each episode concludes with a haiku - an oblique glimpse of what the animal characters call "hard to explain." ("The pale moon resting / on foggy water. Hear that / splash? A frog's jumped in.") On each spread there's another haiku, a decorative grace note in delicate Japanese characters (translations appear at the end, along with transliterations of these classics by Basho and Shiki). Wabi Sabi's quest and the splendid pictures will please younger children (though probably not as young as the publisher's recommended range of 3 to 6). The rest of us will be better prepared to appreciate the subtle interconnections among dialogue, poetry and collages fashioned from "time-worn human-made as well as natural materials." Even this medium is a metaphor for the gentle philosophy explored here. The art is rich in leaf greens and glowing reds; in the textures of hair, straw, crazed paint or rough paper. Young captures moments of transcendent beauty - a frog visible through moon-struck water (crumpled, iridescent paper) - and his art incorporates traditional haiku references (a pale moon, symbol of autumn). Life-size, the cat invites us in, peering intently from the large, square jacket. Opening it, we find that she's among pine trees, which (since the book is hinged at the top) are now above her. That top hinge is brilliant. It recalls Japanese wall hangings, and it reinforces the theme by compelling us to see this familiar object from a new angle. Also, like many a cat intent on her own agenda, this book's no lap sitter. It's a challenge to hold and angle it comfortably, to turn pages with hands accustomed to accessible right-hand corners. Wabi Sabi completes her quest after several small, satisfying epiphanies. Meanwhile, the lovely illustrations grow less detailed until, home at last, the cat is simply silhouetted on white, the single, freely brushed character above her declaring, "Free of possessions." If wabi sabi is "a feeling, rather than an idea," this outcome feels just right. Joanna Rudge Long, a former editor at Kirkus Reviews, writes and lectures about children's books.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 27, 2009] Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* What's Wabi Sabi? In this story, it's the name of a brown cat, but in Japanese culture, it's a feeling that finds beauty and harmony in the simple, imperfect, natural, modest, and mysterious. When visitors come to Kyoto, they ask the cat's owner the meaning of her name; Wabi Sabi hears it's hard to explain, so she sets off on a journey to find the answer. Each animal she visits gives a piece of the complicated puzzle. Some of the allusions are beautiful: The pale moon resting / on foggy water. Hear that / splash? A frog's jumped in. Still, the cat is confused. But the more she looks, feels, and sees, her new affinity for the simplicity of nature and the elegance of what is brings her to her own poetry and understanding. Reibstein and Young have created a magnificent offering that is the embodiment of Wabi Sabi, incorporating all the elements listed above. Remarkably, the well-paced story is also ethereal, bringing readers, like its protagonist, to the edge of comprehension, then letting them absorb all that has come before to make their own connections. In this endeavor, the text is aided by Young's amazing collages. So lifelike are they that children will reach out to touch, and then touch again, not quite believing the art is one-dimensional. The format, which has readers opening the book lengthwise, allows extra room for embellishments like haiku by poets Basho and Shiki written in Japanese on the page and translated in an addendum. A glorious piece of bookmaking whose subject and execution will reach a wide age range.--Cooper, Ilene Copyright 2008 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by School Library Journal Review

Gr-2-4-This ambitious picture book tells the story of a cat living in Kyoto with her master. Curious to discover her name's meaning, Wabi Sabi travels across Japan, seeking advice and explanation from a variety of sources. In an introductory note, readers learn that the name comes from a concept centered on finding beauty through simplicity. As the feline discovers that she is ordinary yet wonderful, she comes to understand the meaning of her name. It is a complex idea, and the cat's journey is an effective way of presenting it to elementary school readers. The book reads from top to bottom, like a scroll, and contains a haiku and line of Japanese verse on each spread. Young's beautiful collages have an almost 3-D effect and perfectly complement the spiritual, lyrical text. While the story of Wabi Sabi's journey will hold some appeal for younger children, this is a book to be savored and contemplated and will be most appreciated by children old enough to grasp its subtle meaning. Translations are provided for the Japanese text as well as notes on haiku and the history of wabi sabi to place the whole lovely package in context.-Kara Schaff Dean, Walpole Public Library, MA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Horn Book Review

(Primary) This impressive-looking book -- square, oversized, and opening upward rather than sideways -- uses a cat's journey to define the concept of wabi sabi. As the text before and after the story explains, wabi sabi is an ancient Chinese way of understanding and living that was adopted by the Japanese in the fourteenth century and is at the heart of their tea ceremony. Wabi sabi seems to be beauty and harmony as well as humbleness and simplicity ("A warm heavy bowl/comfortable as an old friend -- /not fine, smooth china"). Yet this book is far from simple, and the elaborate and sumptuous presentation calls out for notice. Young's collage art is as striking and thought-provoking as ever, employing large swaths of photographic images to create blocks of texture that seem to pop off the page. Newcomer Reibstein's story explains the title concept through a cat named Wabi Sabi who takes a folkloric journey through Tokyo, asking various animals what her name means. Each explanation -- a mix of narrative and haiku -- leaves the cat (and the reader) still in the dark. Finally, Wabi Sabi appears to understand. But will the child audience get it? From HORN BOOK, (c) Copyright 2010. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.