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April 16, 2012

New Books: Taka-chan and I

I'd mostly seen chapter books thus far from the New York Review Children's Collection, those masters of reissuing forgotten classics of children's lit. Not that this was a bad thing, mind you—we've discovered many of our favorite kids' books from the collection, from the infinitely charming "cookbook" Mud Pies and Other Recipes to the irresistible Terrible, Horrible Edie (part of a series I still can't believe isn't better known to modern audiences).

But while everything the NYRCC puts out is marvelous, I hadn't seen much in the way of your typical big, square children's picture book from them (perhaps because the classic picture books tend to stay in print in the first place far longer than the chapter books do?). I should have known it was only a matter of time: Taka-chan and I: A Dog's Journey to Japan, by Betty Jean Lifton and illustrated with photographs by Eikoh Hosoe, originally published in 1967, has arrived—and is equally marvelous.

The book tells the fable of Runcible, a Weimaraner from Massachusetts who gets especially forceful with his beach digging one day and tunnels through the earth to emerge in Japan. (Or rather, I should say, the fable is told by Runcible in first-person narration.) There he meets a little girl named Taka-chan, who has been taken captive by a sea dragon. When Runcible meets the dragon, it explains that it is angry because the girl's father and other local fishermen no longer pay their respects to him, but that it will let Taka-chan go if Runcible can find the most loyal creature in Japan. He accepts this quest, which leads dog and girl deep into the teeming crowds of Tokyo.

Each page is illustrated with a black-and-white photograph by Hosoe, a renowned Japanese artistic photographer and filmmaker who's worked with the likes of Yukio Mishima. While each obviously had to have been carefully staged and directed to fit the narrative, there's an inherent naturalism to Hosoe's images that clicks perfectly with this book's conceit. If Taka-chan and I feels at all dated, it's simply because there aren't many children's books using this kind of framework anymore—and even that effect is only noticeable to parents, I think. Both my sons took to the book, and its typically expressive Weimaraner (photographed some years before Wegman!), right off, much as they take to any other picture book.

In other words, the NYRCC has done it again. May it continue forever!

[Cover image courtesy of NYRCC]

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