Books | Children's Literature in Japan

Keiko Sena: Whimsical books with a hint of horror

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

The picture books of Keiko Sena span 50 years and nearly 100 books and counting. Growing up in postwar Japan, Sena brought an edgy, whimsical humor to the genre, and her work enjoys an enduring popularity. Every book reveals a deep understanding of children, juxtaposing charming simplicity with the satisfying bite of fairy tale grim.

Here’s a small selection to understand Sena’s appeal:

Her first published book, “Iyada Iyada” (“I Don’t Want To!”), shares the story of Lulu, a little girl too comfortable with saying no until her favorite objects begin to say no back, creeping away and refusing to play with her. No happy ending or reconciliation makes itself known on the last page.

“Nenaiko Dareda” (“Who’s Not Sleeping?”) reveals a little boy caught awake at night, taken off to “the ghost world” to become a ghost himself.

“Usagi-chan” (“Little Rabbit”) follows the imagination of a little girl as she begs her pet rabbit to eat more and more so they can fly to the moon together and visit the rabbits who live there.

Despite the suggestion of horror, children love Sena’s work and adults can’t help but grin. Although some of her work has been translated into English, the simple Japanese storylines and distinctive illustrations make them worth reading in the original.

Born in Tokyo in 1931, Sena studied painting under the famous puppet maker, fairy tale writer and children’s illustrator, Takeo Takei, before discovering her own unique style of pasting together shapes and sketches to form childlike, crudely appealing illustrations. After the runaway success of “I Don’t Want To!” in 1969, Sena published three more books that same year to launch her prolific career. She used many of the same characters in future books, such as Lulu, Rabbit and Ghost, and quickly built up a following of fans.

Her books are now considered classics, still bestsellers decades after publication. A visitor to the children’s section of any Japanese bookstore will find a wide selection of her work, still prominently displayed as new generations discover her charm.

To celebrate her contribution to children’s literature, this year — the 50th anniversary of her first publication — a special exhibition is traveling through the halls of museums across the nation, honoring her work. The exhibition features over 300 of her trademark pasted pictures, special collections of her stories and various products celebrating her art. Starting off in Kanagawa Prefecture this past summer, the exhibition just finished in Aichi Prefecture and will open next month in Osaka.

Whether you have children or not, Keiko Sena’s work catches the eye and the imagination, and showcases the original mind of someone who happens to be a master storyteller for kids.

This is the seventh installment of the series “Children’s Literature in Japan,” which explores notable authors and illustrators of children’s and young adolescent literature. Read more at jtimes.jp/childrenslit. For more information about the 50th anniversary exhibition celebrating Keiko Sena, visit bit.ly/senaexhib.