When author and illustrator Mariko Shinju’s son was 4 years old, he left food on his plate. Like many Japanese mothers, Shinju said to him, “Mottainai.”

“What is mottainai, Mom?” he asked innocently.

Although she grew up hearing her mother and grandmother say “mottainai,” she couldn't find the right words to explain what it meant. It was just something that was said to express disappointment at a waste of food or other things. So instead, she picked up a pen and began to draw.