City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco had only a few hard back picture books when I visited it last month. One caught my eye: it had a strange title Wabi Sabi and I had to rotate the cover to the right to read it. As there must have been a reason for this and as the bookshop encouraged lengthy browsing, I sat down to find out what it was all about. Over half an hour later I’d uncovered all the subtle layers of an extraordinary picture book.
On the surface Mark Reibstein’s story is about a cat called Wabi Sabi who travels across
in search of the meaning of her
name. I could now see why the illustrator Ed Young had played with the
orientation of the book; it reads like a Japanese scroll and the red stamps with the author and illustrator’s names on the cover also suggest something ancient and Japanese.
But there is also a vibrant modern feel to Ed Young’s collages which are made from a ‘collection of time-worn human- made as well
as natural materials’ – his words. Japan
I started looking at the text. Woven into Mark Reibstein’s story are haikus and at the start, a Zen proverb:
‘An old pine tree can teach you the sacred truths’.
Something complex evidently lay behind this seemingly simple story and the prologue gave me a clue: Wabi Sabi is a way of seeing the world:
‘It finds beauty in what is simple, imperfect, natural, modest and mysterious. It can be a little dark but it is also warm and comfortable. It may best be understood as a feeling rather than an idea.’
So this is what children of picture book age have to discover as they follow the cat named Wabi Sabi on her journey. I’m sure children are as clever as, if not cleverer than adults at seeing beauty in ordinary things.
As for me, I left the shop happy that picture books like this are still being published (Little Brown Company New York is the publisher) and inspired to revisit the haikus of Basho,1644, in search of more Wabi Sabi.