As I have never made any academic study of children and never even read an article written about children, I cannot possibly consider myself as a specialist about children. My feeling is very confidenceless.
Anyhow, I begin. I was born and grew up in a southern village in Japan, and from the time I was a little boy I was very fond of the children younger than myself.
Even in the period of my early youth when I was suspicious and nihilistic toward everything and everybody, with no faith in the world at all, I could not be negative in my feeling toward the children. In that one gift – to feel the unique beauty, the innocent and helpless beauty of children – I think I was a little unusual.
Years later I was asked to put all my knowledge and capability into teaching an art class of children in a mission school. I did not know how to begin.
My son had begun to use a pencil when he was about a year and a half old, and he became far more eloquent in his watercolors than his speaking when he was four years old. It seemed that other children must have the same talent for expression, and somehow we managed, as each day brought more experience.
One day a mother carne to the class with a little three-year-old boy. He carried a large shopping bag in which was a clean sheet of paper and a crayon. He came stepping inch-by-inch, very frightened, and it was obvious that he did not know what drawing is. He sat for a long time without doing anything at all, even after I had asked him, ” Can you make a triangle?” and he had answered, ” Yes.”
Finally he made a tiny tiny triangle way down in the corner of his paper. His classmates teased him saying, ” It looks like the head of an ant.”
” Yes, it is the head of an ant,” he said, and put body and legs to it. Then he made a house from a larger triangle and it grew into a trolley car, and then he made more ants – hundreds of ants and more houses and streets – until he had created a ” City scene of ants” such as no one could possibly have imagined.
In some such way as this the thirty children in my art class were able to do splendid drawings which even their parents could not believe.
This was the period of the Japanese invasion of China, and more and more men around us were being drafted and returned dead. I myself was thinking of death and also waiting for a draft-paper every day. I did not want to die and found out that it was because I was positively attached to the people.
At the same time I could not take up my paint brushes any more, as I was realizing that the meaning of all the canvases I had done was unbearably shallow.
One day I was on a trolley car. I saw a middle-aged man with his son, about the age of my five-year-old. I could be sure that the man also was expecting a draft-paper any day, and was trying not to waste a moment with his son. I could see it in the way he held the boy on his lap and he covered his son’s knees with both his hands. I never had felt the meaning of the human body so deeply and of course I never had made it reflect in my canvas. I thought that to present such meanings I would have to make a new study from the very beginning and I wanted to study the Western masters to see how they had painted what they understood.
I am sure this decision in such a difficult period was also due largely to the inspiration that came from the fresh vision and imagination of the children in my art class.
And so we came to this country. Our life here was completely separated from children as we left our son on the other side. It was ten years later and two years after the end of World War II before our son, now fifteen, could join us. At about the same time our daughter was born.
And then for almost four years I was beaten flat by an ulcer. But, being flat, I had plenty of time to think and it was inevitable that I should check over my life’s experiences and re-form myself and my art from the very beginning
And, very fortunately and unexpectedly, this struggle was helped by the fact that I was able to live with our new-born daughter so intimately. I was able not only to observe every moment of our daughter’s growth but also to root out a certain prejudice toward women that had existed in me more or less as a result of my upbringing in Japan. Our daughter, who was two years old or so, used to put her cheek on mine whenever I had an ulcer pain. If it were not for my illness I never would have known that such a gentle human being could exist in such a little helpless baby.
I wanted to thank this little life and tell some nice stories to make this little girl happy.
Although I had stories which were told by my grandmother and father and read by myself, somehow they all seemed lifeless to express my feeling. So then I thought that perhaps if I could recall the joyful experiences of my childhood and tell them to her just as they happened they might recreate the same joy in her.
The Village Tree was a tree which stood deep in my memory as a symbol of my childhood. I had no idea of publishing that Village Tree. I just asked myself – why that tree stands so patiently in my memory; why that tree could be a symbol of my childhood. Why so?
Starting from such questions, I got closer to that tree and looked up from this side and that side. I climbed up on every branch and swam around under the tree to find out the reasons which made the joy in the memories. As I stated before, I did it for our daughter.
Plenty to Watch was done in the same way. It takes a long time to make a book for a child.
Often before I had wanted to publish picture books for children. The reason I was not able to realize my wish is that I went about it the wrong way. Finding the right way has taken half a lifetime. But still I have found it and I know that the impressions we have been getting from the outside world are astonishingly richer in us than we realize until we recall them for a child who is dear to us.
Well, as I mentioned in the beginning, I am not a specialist about children. But, as a human being, I cannot help imagining that children will grow and face many sorts of struggle that may even bring them to despair at times. I cannot help hoping that children will live through all their difficulties and I cannot help having the desire to give them something to help them through – these children who are innocent, helpless and beautiful and ready to grow with such splendid possibilities.
The world is wide. Everything in it can be used to make books for children. But I think the theme of these should be, “This earth is beautiful! Living is wonderful! Believe in humankind! ”
Published in “The Horn Book Magazine” in February, 1955