Books | Children's Literature in Japan

Satoshi Kitamura’s key to children’s literature? Making complex ideas simple

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing writer

To round out our series on Japanese children’s books, this month we profile the widely acclaimed writer and illustrator, Satoshi Kitamura.

Born in Tokyo in 1956, Kitamura bypassed formal artistic training but read manga and drew constantly as a child. As a young adult, he worked briefly as a graphic artist before moving to England in 1979 at age 23. He found a job designing greeting cards while searching for small venues to exhibit his art. Kitamura landed illustration work for a picture book. That first book, published in 1982, was “Angry Arthur,” written by Hiawyn Oram and now a classic piece of children’s literature. It earned Kitamura the 1983 Mother Goose Award for most exciting newcomer to British children’s book illustration.

Since then, he’s written more than 20 books and illustrated many others with collaborators, including several with Oram. Kitamura moved back to Japan in 2009 to care for his parents but continues to publish mostly in English, although he also publishes in Japanese and has been translated into Spanish, French and Chinese, as well as many other languages.

Acclaimed for his quirky drawings, unusual compositional perspectives and bold watercolors, Kitamura’s art has earned him numerous fans but his original storytelling is equally laudable. His surreal, sly worldview is reflected in the narrative voice of his works, both his own and in his collaborators. “Angry Arthur,” for example, visually reflects the rage of a child, as jagged storm clouds of emotion build to a “universe-quake” of total annihilation.

Other memorable works include a story in which a small boy switches places with his cat to avoid school (“Me and My Cat?”), a group of sheep out on adventures (“Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing”) and the recurring character of Boots the cat ( “Comic Adventures of Boots”). His regular collaborators include John Agard, the poet who, together with Kitamura, created a contemporary version of Dante’s “Inferno” (“The Young Inferno”). Another recent work was inspired by Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Carnival of the Animals,” one of the most famous pieces of classical music written for children.

Kitamura’s next book is “The Smile Shop” and will be published in August by Scallywag Press in the U.K., and in October by Iwanami Shoten in Japan.

As Kitamura says, “My books are probably most popular in Latin America, especially in Mexico and Colombia. But I think children’s literature, specifically picture books, is quite universal. I do not adjust my work for a particular audience in terms of countries, languages or cultural backgrounds. I do try to make my books as accessible as possible to younger readers although it does not mean to make them ‘simple.’ You can deliver quite complex ideas or concepts if you depict them correctly in both words and pictures, and that’s the essence of children’s literature.”

This is the 12th and final installment of the series “Children’s Literature in Japan,” which explores notable authors and illustrators of children’s and young adolescent literature. Read the full series at jtimes.jp/childrenslit.

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