comfortable as an old friend —
not fine, smooth china.
Mark Reibstein, Wabi Sabi
Pictured above is Wabi Sabi, the cat in Mark Reibstein’s beautiful new picture book, Wabi Sabi, illustrated by Ed Young and published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers this October. She’s sitting with her master, who has trouble explaining what Wabi Sabi’s name means when her visitors ask. “That’s hard to explain,” she responds, shaking her head.
Well, as the book’s final note on the history of wabi sabi explains, its origins are in Taoism and Zen Buddhism, “but wabi sabi began to shape Japanese culture when the Zen priest Murata Shuko of Nara (1423-1502) changed the tea ceremony. He discarded the fancy gold, jade, and porcelain of the popular Chinese tea service, and introduced simple, rough, wooden and clay instruments.” The term wabi sabi tries to capture the joy of natural simplicities (“wabi sabi is a way of seeing the world that…finds beauty and harmony in what is simple, imperfect, natural, modest, and mysterious,” the book opens on the title page. “It can be a little dark, but it is also warm and comfortable. It may best be understood as a feeling, rather than as an idea”), yet apparently you’ll get a lot of “that’s hard to explain”s when you ask…
…just as Wabi Sabi, our feline protagonist here, does. Not satisfied with her master’s lack of a coherent response, Wabi Sabi heads out to decipher the meaning of wabi sabi by asking others. Her friend, Snowball (another cat), tells her, “that’s hard to explain.” But she does respond with a haiku:
An old straw mat, rough
on cat’s paws, pricks and tickles . . .
hurts and feels good, too.
Still not clear on the term, Wabi Sabi heads to Rascal, the dog, who snaps that it’s too hard of a concept to explain, also adding condescendingly his own haiku about how ordinary Wabi Sabi is, “simple as a brown leaf.” After someone finally directs Wabi Sabi to a wise, old monkey, living amongst the pine trees, Wabi Sabi heads through the big city, enters the woods, and arrives at the foot of Mount Hiei. Kosho, the monkey, greets Wabi Sabi with warm tea and tries to explain what wabi sabi is, admitting that it’s a difficult concept to articulate.
But Kosho tries, and—after watching him move slowly and gracefully as he makes tea for his visitor—Wabi Sabi begins to understand:
She looked carefully at the woods surrounding them. There was so much life, as in the city, but here things were not clean, neat, or sharp-edged. There were no straight lines, yet there were many designs—on trees, in clouds and dirty ponds. She saw that everything was
alive and dying
too, like the damp autumn leaves
curled beneath their feet.
When he tells her that simple things are beautiful, as he’s pouring more tea for her, Wabi Sabi has her epiphany: “Now I understand.”
This book is a wonder, I tell ya. First of all, you have this very complicated concept as the subject matter for a picture book, so kudos to every single person involved in the creation of this title who didn’t think children just wouldn’t get it — and who knew that, of ALL THE audiences, they would likely get it the best. Secondly, it’s gracefully written. Reibstein uses a spare text and a haiku on each spread to absolutely nail the elusive wabi sabi, while managing to keep the mystery and wonder of it all going for the reader until Wabi Sabi herself comes to her own understanding. And, finally, Ed Young’s illustrations are sublime. Using vertically-oriented collages (made from a “collection of time-worn human-made as well as natural materials,” in the words of Mr. Young himself), the illustrations explore the concept of wabi sabi with a graceful economy when needed and a dazzling array of colors and shapes and patterns and, in the case of the city spread, dizziness when needed. If wabi sabi is a sort of beauty in imperfection, a beauty in our unique flaws, in our rough edges and our mysteries, Young captures it well with his texturized, multi-layered, rough-edged collage work. In the embedded video below, which I really recommend watching, Young himself says, “wabi sabi…is seeing the beauty of things which are not noticed by ordinary vision,” adding that if you stay with something long enough, you see the subtlety and poetry in it. Well, no wonder they chose him to illustrate this book. Young’s vision is one I would hardly describe as ordinary. It is singular, exceptionally observant — anyone who’s a fan of his illustrated titles knows no further explanation is needed.
Kirkus Reviews beat me to it by describing it all as “simply beautiful.”
I have Alvina Ling at Little, Brown to thank for the art work here today so that you can see for yourself and get a sense of the beauty of it all — without just my rambling to aid you. But good news: Alvina has a series of posts in four parts over at Blue Rose Girls about the story behind this book, including the tale of how Young’s original art work went missing—yes, LOST!—and the book’s all-around “long, crazy path to publication,” as Alvina described it. And those posts include more images from the book. So, if you’re so inclined, that story begins here at the part-one post. There’s also this fabulous video about the book and its path to publication from Little, Brown — including interviews with Reibstein and Young. This is well-worth your time:
One final note: Evidently, Wabi Sabi is completely out of stock right now. Alvina thinks that Barnes & Noble might be the only one to currently have it in stock, which is why I’ve linked the book title each time to their site. “We’re doing a rush reprint and have back orders,” Alvina told me, “but because it needs to be printed overseas, it might not be in stock until the beginning of February, although we’re looking into air-freighting some stock for early January.” Just FYI, in case anyone is eager to purchase your own copy of the title, as I am.
For that reason, I should have waited to post about this book, since some people actually—I THINK—might use some of these posts for bookstore trips. But what can I say? I am impatient and a big nerdy fan of the book, so I could hardly wait to show you Ed’s beautiful art. All of that’s to say: If you go looking for it and can’t find it for a bit, be patient. It will be re-stocked.
Now shoo. Go find the wabi sabi in your day. Until next time . . .
Illustrations from WABI SABI. Text copyright © 2008 by Mark Reibstein. Illustrations © 2008 by Ed Young. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Little, Brown and Company Books for Young Readers, New York.