BOOK REVIEW: Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories, Book 2 by Sakade, Florence, Hayashi, Yoshio (2004) Hardcover

This is the second book in the ‘Japanese Children’s Favourite Stories’ series, a compendium of traditional Japanese fairy tales shortened and simplified to the bare basics (and stripped of their more violent aspects) in order to make them accessible to children. This is the second book in the series, and though it repeats a couple of stories from the first book, the stories here are just as good as, if not better , than those of book one.

What appeals to me about fairy tales is the sense of magic and mystery they create. You don’t read  Grimm’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ for its interesting characters; you read them for their brilliant atmosphere- to feel like you’re walking through the castle frozen in time.

In this book, the environments are unique and fascinating; we visit underwater kingdoms (‘Urashimo Taro’), magical princesses (‘The Princess and the Herdboy’ and ‘Urashimo Taro’), what’s translated as ‘elves’ and ‘goblins’ (‘The Sandal Seller’ and ‘Why the Red Elf Cried’), and of course, benevolent dragons (‘The Dragon’s Tears’). These are very bare bones versions of the original tales, so not a lot of time is spent dwelling on atmosphere, but the strange worlds and devices that inhabit this book are engaging in and of themselves.

The sense of wonder is brilliant, and the feel and morality of the stories are different. We have the traditional trickster story of ‘How To Fool A Cat’; the stories where kindness is rewarded in various supernatural ways (‘The Dragon’s Tears’, ‘The Rolling Rice Cakes’ and ‘The Fairy Crane’); and we have  the ‘Princess and the herdboy’, which is the mythological story that inspired the Japanese Tanabata (star festival).

However, the crown jewels in this collection are definitely ‘The Singing Turtle’, ‘Why the Red Elf Cried’ and ‘Urashima Taro’. ‘Urashima Taro’ is the story of the man who visits the underworld Kingdom of the Dragon King (Japan’s answer to the world of ‘The Little Mermaid’ or Arabian Night’s ‘Gulnare of the Sea’). It has a great feel of magic and mystery, and its ending is deeply tragic without being inappropriate for kids.

There was also something quite funny about the titular sea creature in ‘The Singing Turtle’, while ‘Why the Red Elf Cried’ is a surprisingly moving tale of friendship.

Each of the stories are illustrated with a few simple watercolour images, which though aren’t stunning, are cute and lend this book a real Japanese feel and will help keep kids engaged.

This compendium of stories is a decent introduction to Japanese fairy tales for older readers, and presents a fun alternative to the usual Grimm’s fairy tales for younger readers. However, one thing that should be noted is that although the style is simple and engaging, the writing style can be a bit complex for especially young readers.  This is probably a book that is more suited to being read out to younger readers rather than being one that they read by themselves.

RATING: 3.5 magical moon bunnies making mochi on a mystical mortar/ out of 5

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