Wabi sabi: “Simple things are beautiful.”

h1 December 8th, 2008 by jules

A warm heavy bowl
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.

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23 comments to “Wabi sabi: “Simple things are beautiful.””

  1. I love cut paper/collage illustrations so much that even though this book doesn’t quite fit any of the kids I know (it’s a bit esoteric for the literal-minded kids I know), I may buy a copy anyway and hope they grow into it. Conceptually the idea of beauty in the details, of imperfection having its own beauty — is so vast that I don’t even have the ability to express it myself. I like that someone felt it was a big enough concept to include kids, who can go there, sometimes even when we can’t.


  2. Oh man, I’m swooning over this post and those spreads. I’m DYING to own a copy of this book! I can see why you were so anxious to share the art.


  3. I got my copy already. And I ADORE it. I love the traditional Japanese haiku on each spread, too, the images of which are echoed on the page (translations at the back of the book). One of my fave pbs for 2008.


  4. Thanks, you all. Yes, TadMack, it certainly wouldn’t be for all children (well, what book is?), and as some reviewer some place said (can’t remember who), the designated age range for the book (3 to 7, I believe it is) might be a bit much (on the low end of it, as in too sophisticated for three-year-olds), but those age ranges are tricky ALL the time. In my opinion, though, it’s a keeper for older kids, for picture book nerd adults like us, and …well, it’s just one of the most beautiful books I’ve seen all year, to echo what Kelly said. Personally, I was rather giddy to find there’s a term for what I look for in people, objects, even the way I try to decorate my home, live my life, etc. The book was rather a revelation to me. “Wabi sabi” might be old news to many, but to me it was an all-new concept.


  5. I’m dying to read this book, too, but I’m also wishing it could be required reading for all the readers of my newspaper columns, especially those who can’t seem to understand what’s wrong with chain stores and strip malls.
    After enough people have read this book, I’ll simply be able to note that the big coffee and bread store being built almost in front of the locally-owned coffee shop is greatly lacking in Wabi Sabi.

    It will be great if a generation [or more] of American kids grows up knowing this book.


  6. Sam: Word.


  7. Oh, the news that this is unavailable right now may be the saddest thing I’ve read today… it’s going on my wishlist anyway!


  8. Those pages are GORGEOUS. Are they actual collages assembled on the page — like “flat pop-up books” might be — or are they just sort of 3D-looking illustrations? Whichever, they made me want to reach into the monitor to touch them, feel their cut edges and depths.

    And as Sam (and you, Jules) said, the implicit message in the story couldn’t be lovelier. “Greatly lacking in Wabi Sabi”: ha! That’s going straight onto my list of putdowns guaranteed to go right over the heads of a lot of their targets. 🙂


  9. Thanks for the wonderful post and great comments, everyone! As for the art–there aren’t actually layers in the book, just in the original art. We photographed the collages and made transparencies so we could get all of the layers and depth to reproduce. It’s a testament to our fabulous design and production teams that the art looks like it pops off the page! It makes you want to touch it, doesn’t it?


  10. I bought my copy last week. I love the text and the texture.


  11. I saw this in the window of my local indie bookstore, but my arms were full of groceries so I didn’t stop to go in. Thanks for the sneak peek inside – I better go see if it’s still there and snap it up!

    SamR, I’m adopting that put-down too! Brilliant.


  12. Wabi Sabi is a beautiful book. It is in my stack of gift books. I hope my little cousin will love it too. I bought it last week at The Bookies in Denver. They had a few copies.


  13. We got our copy of this book in at the library right before I left on my trip last week, and it was so enticing I had to take the time to sit and read it. Lovely, lovely.


  14. Jules,

    I LOVE this book! I’m so glad that my friend Pat who owns a children’s book shop put a copy of WABI SABI aside for me. She thinks it’s one of the best children’s books of the year. I picked the book up a few weeks ago. I think it’s a picture book for all ages.


  15. Oh, thanks for posting this! I remember now that I had put this on my mental gift list months ago, and now I shall go out and find it…


  16. Ok, this looks incredible. I may even go out and get it for a non-child.


  17. I’d been reading about Wabi Sabi for a little while before stumbling upon this book, It’s not something I feel like I would really be able to share with a group of children (at work, the library) but I would recommend for any adult coveters of this book to check out “The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty” by Robyn Griggs Lawrence.


  18. I too think this is one of the best books of the year – and thank you for the link to the interview with Ed Young – I hadn’t seen it.


  19. […] 2008 is Mark Reibstein and Ed Young’s Wabi Sabi so I’ve enjoyed reading 7-Imp’s post from earlier this month, in which Jules not only shares some of the wonderful artwork, but links to […]


  20. […] Illustration from Ed Young’s Wabi Sabi (Little, Brown; October, 2008).Feature: December 8, 2008. […]


  21. Just had to let you know that tonight at ten o’clock on BBC2 UK there is a programme about Wabi Sabi, in the BBC Japanese season. it has been really good some very interesting items myth and fact and film, wonderful Seligor, Pontybodkyn, Wales, UK


  22. […] Ugly Duckling—works on many levels. I know of many folks who thought Young’s Wabi Sabi was, in effect, a coffee table book. A winning one, indeed — but not a book children will […]


  23. […] wee child has a problem with multi-tasking?) Sometimes it’s hard to tell: Roger Sutton saw Wabi Sabi as a coffee table book for adults, but I think that one can resonate with kids. There are also […]


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