Momoko Ishii (1907-2008) won numerous awards for a lifetime devoted to children’s literature, including an Art Encouragement Prize in 1951 and the Japan Art Academy Award in 1993. Although she published 19 books and made over 100 translations, it is her behind-the-scenes efforts to shape and promote Japanese children’s literature that is her most enduring legacy.
Born in Saitama Prefecture, Ishii graduated with a degree in English literature from Japan Women’s University in 1928. While still a student, she began her career by summarizing foreign journals and books as a part-time job under the direction of the famous author and publisher Kan Kikuchi (1888-1948), who later established various literary awards, including the Akutagawa Prize and Naoki Prize for popular literature. Coincidentally, Ishii was awarded the Kikuchi Kan Prize in 1954 for her early contributions to children’s literature.
After graduation, Ishii began working at Iwanami Shoten publishers, learning the ins and outs of the editing business in children’s literature. During the war, she pursued her own original children’s stories on the side, inspired by A. A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh,” which she had translated in 1940.
Her first book was a runaway bestseller, “Nonchan Kumo ni Noru” (“Nonchan Riding a Cloud”), published in 1947 in the aftermath of World War II. The overwhelming success of “Nonchan” is credited with setting a new tone for children’s literature after the propaganda-filled norm that ruled during Japan’s drive for imperialism. The book depicts the adventures of a young girl who falls into a pond while gazing at the reflected sky, only to magically mount a cloud. Inspired by her youth, Ishii included vivid descriptions of the Saitama countryside where she grew up. It was also made into a popular film in 1955.
After the war, Ishii planned and edited the “Iwanami Children’s Library” and “Iwanami Children’s Books” series that introduced Western contemporary works and modern classics in children’s literature, and provided the impetus and inspiration for a new generation of Japanese children’s writers.
In 1954, Ishii left Iwanami Shoten when she was awarded a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation to study children’s literature and the public library system in the United States. Upon her return to Japan, Ishii opened a home library to encourage literacy in her area. As part of a larger study group on children’s literature, Ishii co-authored the book, “Children and Literature” in 1960, which had a major influence on later children’s literature and publishing, setting out the guidelines that children’s literature must be “entertaining, clear and easy to understand.” In later life, she published her autobiography, “Memoirs of a Childhood,” which earned her the Yomiuri Prize for Literature in 1994.
A tireless researcher and writer, Ishii helped to shape Japanese children’s literature in the modern era.
This is the 11th 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.
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