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Nursery rhymes that fly high with sound and color

by Kris Kosaka

JAPANESE NURSERY RHYMES: Carp Streamers, Falling Rain, and other Traditional Favorites, by Danielle Wright and illustrated by Helen Acraman. Tuttle Publishing, 2012, 32 pp., $16.95 (hardcover)

With its many onomatopoeic words, the Japanese language booms and trills, echoing with musical lingo. Usually written in katakana, these words imitating sound or motion inundate normal Japanese speech, from the zaza of a summer rainstorm to the shin of embarrassed silence.

Warabe Uta or traditional Japanese nursery rhymes, often use these sound-words. Japan thus boasts a rich collection of endearing children’s songs, easy to remember with their appealing rhythms: the korokoro of an acorn as it rolls or the zunzun of snow piling up.

A new bilingual collection from Tuttle, “Japanese Nursery Rhymes: Carp Streamers, Falling Rain and other Traditional Favorites,” delights with sound and color as a picture book, a Japanese language primer and a sing-a-long.

Author Danielle Wright, a New Zealand writer and publicist, first started collecting nursery rhymes after the birth of her son. Her first book, “My Village, Rhymes From Around the World,” sought to bring different cultures and perspectives into the nursery.

Her newest book accomplishes a similar goal by making Japanese accessible to English speakers in all its musicality. “Carp Streamers” contains both traditional nursery rhymes and modern children’s songs that are part of Japan’s national curriculum in elementary school music. Both types of songs reveal Japanese culture with an emphasis on the natural world and the purity of childhood moments.

From the whirring pinwheels of the traditional carp streamers for the Children’s Day celebration in May to the booming drums at the village festival, Wright chooses songs that capture the essence of Japan. For each song, Wright includes three lines of words: the original Japanese, the romaji (alphabetized form of phonetic Japanese) and an English translation. Each rhyme also includes a short introduction. In “Chorus of the Raccoons,” for example, Wright explains Japanese myths surrounding the tanuki, a raccoon-dog, popular in folklore and the subject of the rhyme.

Page by page, the rhymes come to life with colorful graphics by Helen Acraman, also a New Zealander. Whimsical and stylized yet containing many small cultural details, the illustrations explode with childlike imagination: the traditional Japanese randoseru (school backpack) slings across a schoolboy as he splashes picchi pichii chappu chappu in the rain. Or little Mii waits for spring so she can wear her bright red new zouri sandals. Her shy smile belies her waku waku heartbeat of anticipation.

You don’t have to be familiar with Japanese and its linguistic traditions to enjoy the rhymes. Language learners, child or adult, will enjoy the colorful pictures as they sing along with the enclosed CD.

Alex Borwick, a New Zealand musician and teacher whose work ranges from roots-rock to alternative folk to traditional Irish tunes, arranges and performs the instruments for all the songs. The songs infuse their Japanese traditions with a lively, folky freshness, pulling from a variety of musical inspirations.

If you’re looking for a way to bring Japanese into your home, “Carp Streamers” complies with colorful songs, culture and language. Before bedtime, these stories guarantee a gu-gu sleep or at least a niko- niko smile of pleasure before dreamdom.