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Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Boy in the Garden: "How charming", Mr. Ozu said.

The Boy in the Garden, written and illustrated by Allen Say.
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2010

Click on the cover to listen how we read The Boy in the Garden by Allen Say

The Boy in the Garden is one of my son's absolute favourite books. He went through a phase, lasting around two solid months, when he had to have it every single night. He's grown out of that now, but it still remains one of his favourites. Although in terms of reading age, it's probably best suited to children from around 4 up to 8 or so, there's something about it that attracted my son's attention -and kept it!- from the age of approximately 22 months. I think it manages to convey a sense of mystery beyond the words and the pictures, and to provide an immersion into a child's retreat away from an adult world and code that can sometimes seem puzzling, even mean. There is perhaps something about this retreat into a private mental life, portrayed here as ultimately positive, even liberating, that seems to resonate even with kids as young as that.
We like it!

The Story
This story takes as its background (and includes as a preface -also read in our recording, even though we don't include it every time we read the book) the traditional Japanese tale of The Grateful Crane, where a crane repays a man who rescues it from a trap by turning into a woman and marrying him, and then withdraws the repayment when the man breaks his vow not to look while she is weaving beautiful cloth for them to sell and survive, turning back into a crane and flying away. In The Boy in the Garden The Grateful Crane is presented as "The story that Mama read to Jiro".

The Boy in the Garden itself is the story of Jiro and his father paying a New Year's visit to one Mr. Ozu, whose garden is very famous and whose house is full of treasures, Jiro is warned, in a "don't touch" fashion.

After saying hello and accepting Mr. Ozu's New Year's gift it very soon becomes clear that this is all an adults' affair and Jiro wonders off, eventually into the garden, where he is drawn to a crane standing in the distance. He slowly creeps up to it, holding his breath, listening to the stones crunching under his feet, and is about to reach out when his father abruptly interrupts his solitary adventure with loud laughter from the house, pointing out that it's only a statue. Mr. Ozu joins in the laughter. "How charming", he says.

Embarrased, Jiro runs off and retreats into what initially seems like a daydream and ends up as an actual dream involving the crane woman of his Mama's story, a kimono just his size, him acting "just like Papa" and going out to search for firewood and him promising not to peek when the woman announces she's going to do some weaving. Stop! he shouts, until he hears a door opening, then voices and eventually his father and Mr. Ozu saying he's had a bad dream. "A charming boy", Mr. Ozu laughs again. The father chuckles too.

When they are leaving the garden, Jiro can't take his eyes away from the crane statue, and his father makes an attempt at an apology, now that no other adults are about: "You know, son, for a moment that crane looked real". But Jiro answers: "It's just a statue, Papa".

The last scene shows a crane flying in the light of the moon above Mr. Ozu's garden, with Jiro, we are told, fast asleep in his own bed.

The Illustrations
(Apologies for the appalling photographs, but there are practically none to be found online and all I could do was take snaps with my phone. I will eventually do my best to put this right.)

There is something about Caldecott Medalist Allen Say's pencil and watercolour illustrations in The Boy in the Garden that draws you in quietly but surely.

The first time I saw them I wasn't particularly taken by them. Yes, technically they are very good, exquisitely executed and rather sophisticated, but not really my style. However, reading the book to my son and watching what caught his attention it struck me that there was something rather special about the illustrations.

Say makes Jiro and his perspective lead the illustrations. It's almost like watching a warped perspective, which just happens to be perfectly straight. We are shown the story through the child's mind, and get to feel the excitement, the sense of divide between adult and child code and language, and ultimately, the unique combination of fear and thrill, disappointment and excitement  of a child learning about the world.

The technique is impeccable and the result is complex.

Here are a few of our favourite illustrations of The Boy in the Garden:

Jiro peeping out at the crane in the distance

Jiro about to touch the crane, with his father and Mr. Ozu laughing in the distance
Jiro embarrassed

Jiro finds the woodcutter's cottage

Aren't you supposed to be lost in the snowstorm?

No, I'll never peek. Never!

By the time the moon rose above the garden of Mr. Ozu,
Jiro was fast asleep in his own bed.

Reading it Aloud

As I have said at the start, this book is probably best suited to the 4-8 age group (give or take). However, this book has what I call the "early interest factor". Some books are enjoyable from a much younger age than their official target audience. What younger children enjoy about it will almost certainly be very different from what older children who understand all the story and all the nuances will get out of it, but that does not mean they will not enjoy it (in my son's case, it's true love!). And its fascinating to watch how what they enjoy about it gradually shifts as their understanding of the actual story increases.

The Boy in the Garden is a gentle book to read aloud, with just the right dose of tension and suspense, perfect for bedtime.

I'm talking here of reading it to a two year old (obviously reading it to an older kid will be rather different). For a two year old then, the "high points" of the book read aloud are:

-The laughter of the father interrupting Jiro's private expedition to touch the crane:
Ha, ha, ha!, bursts of laughter rang out.

-The moment when Jiro spots a small cottage:
"It's the woodcutter's house! he said excitedly. And he forgot to close the door". (I think this is one of my son's favourite parts),

-The rustling sound outside the cottage and finding out it's not a woodcutter, but "a tall woman":
Welcome, Jiro-san", she said and bowed. 
The boy stared. How did you know my name? 

 -Jiro going off to gather firewood, looking back and waving to the woman:
"I'm like Papa going to work in the morning, he thought. I'm the woodcutter.". 

-Where Jiro promises not to peek:
No, I'll never peek. Never! But don't go! 

-And my son always liked, and now repeats, Mr Ozu's comment when Jiro wakes  up:
"A charming boy, Mr. Ozu laughed. Naps in the teahouse like a cat.
Like a cat! says my son.  

The illustrations provide a lot of nice detail to point to and talk about too. It's a very enjoyable book to share.

More on Allen Say
Allen Say won the Caldecott Medal in 1994 for Grandfather's Journey. We haven't read that one. Must get it.

Read a nice interview with Allen Say here:


(c) of all the illustrations in this post: Allen Say, 2010


  1. Wow, great to discover you! And this book sounds gorgeous. The Japanese theme immediately makes me think of Studio Ghibli's Totoro - an animated film that might be just right for your son (my 3 yo loves it) - it's very gentle with no violence at all but a really great story and stunning illustration.

  2. Thank you! I've just had a look at Totoro and it looks fab. Thanks for the suggestion. Will check it out and report back on son's reaction ;).