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Year of the party cats

by Anna Kunnecke

I put this picture book to the toughest test of all: I read it to my 3-year-old. Though the text was a bit over her head, she stared transfixed at the illustrations. Truth be told, so did I. They are delicious: a rustic Japanese village rendered in rich color and packed with food, flowers, humor and cats. Setsu Broderick’s memories of her childhood are recreated in loving detail, and she and her (apparently numerous) siblings and family members appear here in feline form.

JAPANESE TRADITIONS: Rice Cakes, Cherry Blossoms and Matsuri: A Year of Seasonal Japanese Festivities, by Setsu Broderick. Tuttle, 2010, 48 pp., $16.95 (hardcover)

The book travels through the 12 months, from the giddiness of the New Year’s celebration through the hard labor of the spring, following the joy of free summer months and coming full circle with preparations for winter. Each month is treated to two double-page spreads. One is an intricate illustration full of drama and occurrences accompanied by Broderick’s reminiscences, and the second looks at various traditions in more detail, including tidbits of history as well as the proper Japanese words for many of the items illustrated in the previous spread.

It’s obviously a nostalgic look back at a childhood that seems idyllic in retrospect, but by touching on the realities of life without central heating and plumbing Broderick seasons the narrative and keeps it from being too fluffy. Details like the ice-cold watering can that served for washing hands even in winter, the charcoal brazier that was the only source of heat, having homework during summer vacation and getting up every morning for 6:30 “Radio Taiso” (compulsory group exercises) are reminders that not every day was Hina Matsuri (Girl’s Day) or Tanabata (Star Festival).

But there is a rowdy joy in the illustrations that is just infectious. Umpteen kittens (perhaps some of them are cousins?) gather around a pond scooping up tadpoles; siblings sleep together under mosquito nets while fireflies flit through the bedroom; everyone squeezes under the warm kotatsu (heated table) quilt while Grandma keeps a dozing watch — these are scenes from a more communal and earthy life that plucked at some decidedly un-jaded heartstrings in this city slicker.

It’s the same nostalgia evoked by Hayao Miyazaki’s film “Tonari No Totoro,” and even without supernatural guests, there is a kind of hazy magic to this life seen through a child’s eyes. I did note that in nearly every frame, the weary-looking mother cat is performing task after task, usually with a kitten strapped to her back.

Even with jolly-looking grandparents around to help, the necessity of washing clothes by hand in a tub, heating the family bath with twigs and charcoal and dealing with an infant’s laundry in the days before disposable diapers is far from charming. Then there is the delightfully realistic way that on every page, some small person is making a mess of some sort, much to the glee of my 3-year-old reading companion.

For those who want to suck even more educational marrow out of this book, at the end there is a section called “Let’s Look More Closely!” full of teacherly questions for each month like: “How many dragonflies can you find?” But the real value of this book is the masterful way it combines loads of vocabulary words and customs with the tenderness of the author’s memories and the hilarious and busy drawings, making it a treat for both younger and older kids. And for anyone who wonders how life in Japan used to be when people lived closer to the earth, the seasons and each other, this is a sweet, fun, entertaining primer.