Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa. Story and translations by Matthew Gollub; illustrations by Kazuko G. Stone. Lee & Low Books, 1998, 8½ by 10½ inches, 40 pages, hardback. $16.95. Buy the book on Amazon in hardback or paperback, or buy the Japanese version on Amazon Japan.
Matthew Gollub’s Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs! is easy to recommend. Indeed, this children’s book has so much going for it, I recommend it highly—for both children and adults. Cool Melons tells the story of Issa’s life in straightforward details—that his mother died when he was barely more than an infant, that his stepmother despised him, that he was sent away from home at age fourteen, and that despite these challenges he became one of Japan’s foremost and best-loved poets, writing more 20,000 haiku before he died. Yet the details are not dramatized or made maudlin. For example, the death of Issa’s mother is presented simply as follows: “When Issa was three, his mother passed away. His grandmother took care of him every day. But often Issa played alone in the woods. He watched for birds and listened for insects. And for the rest of his life, he considered them his friends.” But more than simply telling carefully chosen facts of the poet’s life, which in this case convey his emotion of loneliness, the book presents thirty-three free-form translations along with their hiragana in graceful, cursive calligraphy by Keiko Smith, as well as varied and entertaining illustrations by Kazuko G. Stone.
The poems are equally well chosen and, along with the illustrations, are the book’s main feature. Although not always in chronological order (as the informative author’s note explains), the poems are paired with the brief prose descriptions of Issa’s life to capture specific periods in the narrative. The combination of prose and poem often creates haibun-like leaps or connections that deepen the story. For example, while Issa was still living at home and being mistreated by his stepmother, we read that “[Issa’s] schoolmaster noticed that he was unhappy and encouraged Issa to write haiku. ‘With haiku,’ he said, ‘you can show what you are feeling inside.’” The following poem is then presented:
A silent toad—
the face of one
bursting with much to say.
In this setting, the poem bursts with the interpretation that Issa himself, though perhaps silent about his oppression, has so much to say—and says it, of course, through haiku. In a more chronological pairing, after the prose passage quoted earlier about Issa playing in the woods, the following translation appears:
Issa wrote this poem when he was just six years old, three years after his own mother had died. Thus we are shown both the reality of the poet’s life and the influences that led to his inimitable poetic style.
Issa’s biography alone is one of great interest. Though the story is almost of a fairytale quality, surely many children in modern America will find much to relate to in the poet’s life, with its tale of an evil stepmother, confusion in a big city, longing for home, and, when he is an adult, the deaths of his own children and even his wife Kiku. The book does not minimize these hardships, and thus the child reader is respected and challenged to deal with them emotionally.
The translations are equally admirable, revering such haiku characteristics as juxtaposition and the use of season words. Not all of Issa’s best-known poems are present, but instead we are given fresh choices, and lesser-known poems appear in a narrative context that serves to energize and enlarge them. After we are told, for example, that Issa likened his beloved wife Kiku to a dove, we read the following:
The dove tells the owl
to fix his worried face.
Kazuko Stone’s illustrations are pleasing and varied, ranging from the shadow of a cat on a shoji screen at the beginning (“Plum tree in bloom— / a cat’s silhouette / upon the paper screen.”) to a silhouette of a goose against a sunset over mountains at the end (“O wild goose, / how young were you / when you set out alone?”). In between we find a kitten trapping a bright red leaf on the ground, red hoods on Buddha statues at New Year’s, and a firefly glowing in the wrinkled palm of the old poet’s hand. The illustration of monkeys in a hot spring (“Mother, father and child monkey, / also take soothing baths— / spring breeze.”) seems visually derivative of (or allusive to?) a famous National Geographic photograph, but is still engaging. My favorite images are the ones depicting snow, such as one showing three children catching snowflakes in their mouths and another of a motionless horse almost lost in the dimness of quietly falling snow. More important, the images are culturally informative about Japan, showing paper lanterns, incense, bamboo, torii (temple gates), geta (wooden sandals), and children in the traditional dress of Issa’s time.
Adding further value to this book’s rich combination of narrative, translations, calligraphy, and illustration are a few pages at the end giving background information on the poems and the book’s creation (including a photograph of a statue of Issa, presumably in his hometown of Kashiwabara). Also noteworthy is an overview of haiku poetry—a description compact and useful enough to teach any child or adult the essential characteristics of the genre. Here we are told that “haiku describe a single moment in nature, something that the poet observes or discovers,” and that “it’s up to the reader to imagine the details and to make the picture complete.” The overview also emphasizes various haiku techniques. The first of these is juxtaposition (“Often, haiku describe two events side by side”) about which we are told that “it’s up to the reader to imagine how or if the two things are related.” A second technique is the use of season words—not just the name of a season but “a word or phrase to suggest the season indirectly.” Reference is also made to the internationalization of haiku and that “Haiku societies have sprouted up like bamboo shoots, and many new forms of haiku have evolved, with themes of humor, satire, romance, and modern life, replacing the traditional focus on nature.” Unlike too many haiku books for children, Cool Melons is obviously well-informed and thoroughly researched.
In all, Matthew Gollub’s book deserves special commendation for its well-rounded presentation of haiku. In the so-called information age where misinformation about haiku continues to infect online and printed resources, it is refreshing to see a multifaceted book such as Cool Melons where haiku—and Issa’s life and poetry in particular—is presented to children accurately and energetically. I also commend Lee & Low Books for its conscientious emphasis on multicultural literature for children. If you have children in your care, read them Cool Melons and celebrate with Matthew Gollub and Issa himself in the magic of turning melons into frogs.
turn to frogs!
If people should come near.
In November of 2013, while at the Bashō Museum in Iga-Ueno, Japan, I was able to purchase a copy of the original Japanese book that was republished in English as Haiku Picturebook for Children. As with all Japanese books, the text reads from right to left, in reverse of the English book. The English version drops the back cover image, adds “for Children” to the title, adds page numbers, and adds a foreword explaining haiku to its audience. Otherwise, the illustrations and text are essentially the same, with a notable exception that may have given rise to the misattribution of the Issa poem to Matsumoto Takashi mentioned in the preceding review. In the Japanese book, the title page presents an image of children flying a kite with a mountain in the background. It is paired with Issa’s famous poem about children playing in a village after the snow melts. The two fit well enough, but the poem actually fits the Japanese book’s cover image better, which shows children playing in a village while the snow melts. In the English book, the kite image is moved to the cover, and its title page uses a sparrow image excerpted from the first page after the title page. The village image is moved from the Japanese cover to page 31 of the English book (second last in the book), opposite the Issa poem that is misattributed to Matsumoto Takashi. The poem is presented in Japanese in both books, and they match, but the names and commentary appear in the English book only in English—and here is where the poet’s name is incorrect in English. In both books the poem that appears immediately before the Issa poem is by Matsumoto Takashi. The Japanese book has no attribution error, and I suspect the error in the English book might have simply been one of copying and pasting the wrong name to the new penultimate poem in the book, as part of moving that text from the start of original book to nearly the end of the new one. Whatever the reason, the poem is misattributed in English, but not in Japanese, and to my knowledge the English edition still has not been corrected.
—3 May 2014