[Meet the Storyteller] A Witch who Lost her Sparks in Singing Shijimi Clams plus Q and A with Naomi Kojima

MeetTheStoryteller

Naomi Kojima photo1

Myra here. We are very privileged to have Naomi Kojima as our featured storyteller for June/July as part of our bimonthly theme From Asia With Love: A Feast of Asian Literature.

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I met Naomi during the AFCC around three years back. She gave me beautiful copies of her books then and I am so excited to finally feature them now here in GatheringBooks. Naomi also shares with us some of her inspiration and creative ideas behind the making of these beautiful books. This is the second of a 3-part interview with Naomi (Check here for Naomi’s thoughts about her The Alphabet Picture Book). So do watch out for more.

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Story and Illustrations by: Naomi Kojima
Published by: Kane/Miller Book Publishers, 2006.
Book given by author. Book photos taken by me. 

I was immediately taken by the main character in this story described as a feisty witch who has lost her sparks. I found that quite tragic. Needless to say, she felt miserable. Then one day she bought a bag filled with shijimi clams for dinner. However, as she put them in a bowl, she heard little sounds – the clams were snoring! And so instead of preparing a luscious miso soup with shijimi clams for her and Toraji (her familiar, a cat) to enjoy that evening, she was loathe to wake the clams up as they seem to be snoozing so contentedly. The witch thought that perhaps the next day she would find the heart to put them into a steaming bowl and finally cook them, but instead she heard those little voices again, resembling that of “tiny popping bubbles” – the shijimi clams are awake!

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How the story unfurls is a celebration of every creature’s longing for home and quiet dreams captured through gentle songs of clams, the perennial exasperated complaints of an irascible yet lovable cat, and a sad witch who discovered joy in the most unlikely of places.

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This is not your average picture book with huge pages. In fact, it kind of reminded me of the time when I read Dr. Seuss books in this format. It is beautifully illustrated in black and white (I just love Naomi’s fine art of illustrating – truly distinctive) and the characters would definitely grow on you with each reading.

I also found this cute video clip that teaches the viewer how to make the perfect miso soup! Yum!

Q and A with Naomi Kojima

I enjoyed this story of an old witch who has lost her “sparks” living alone with her cat, Toraji – this could have been a sad tale of an old woman living a miserable isolated existence, yet this witch remains purposeful, decisive, and compassionate – what made you think of an old witch as the main character in this story (i.e. why not an old grandmother or a young girl perhaps)?

This story came to me when I was making dinner. I was going to make miso soup with shijimi clams that night. The clams were in a bowl of salt water, to make them spurt out sand and ocean particles. Suddenly I heard them moving, and I realized they were alive! Of course no one eats dead clams. Clams should be fresh. But I realized I was going to have to plunge them in boiling water, alive. I hesitated. Do I want dinner, or do I want to save their lives? In the end I chose dinner.

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She was a witch from the start. She arrived with the story, with her grumpy cat Toraji. I knew she was not a witch in her prime years. In her younger and meaner days, she would not have thought twice about boiling clams alive. But now she is baffled by her powerlessness, and by the changes brought on by old age. She is not compassionate yet, but I think she is beginning to experience emotions new to her.  “Even an ogre sheds a tear”. This is what we say in Japan to describe someone who is known to be cold and heartless, who suddenly shows an act of compassion. A witch would highlight the conflict much stronger than a grandmother or a young girl, I would think. 

I never planned her to be a witch. She was there from the beginning of the story.

Did you intend to convey a message through this book?

No, I didn’t. It was purely a story I wanted to tell. Some people have told me they couldn’t eat shijimi clams after they read the book, but no, I did not intend to say let’s become vegetarian!

Was it a deliberate decision for you to do all the illustrations in black and white? What was the creative process behind this?

Yes, I chose pencil for this picture book. My early picture books were done in pen and ink, and later I started using watercolors and pen and ink. But I just love to work in black and white. When I started working on this book, I knew I wanted the illustrations to be in black and white, but this time in pencil.

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I love the texture of pencil. I also thought I could be more spontaneous with pencil, but it was not so. Using pencils turned out to be more time consuming than working with pen and ink, and needed more control. With pen and ink you can erase the pencil lines after you draw in ink, but with pencil I could not erase the under lines. I had to do many sketches and plan the drawings carefully. I also like my pencil point to be very sharp, so I would draw some lines, and then I had to sharpen the pencil. The illustrations took a long time, but working in pencil was very satisfying.

Thank you so much Naomi for sharing all this with us.

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More info about Singing Shijimi Clams:

I created this book almost 30 years ago. It touches me deeply that it continues to be loved and read by many children. It has become a play for a children’s theater.  It was published in the U.S. in 2006, almost twenty years after it was published in Japan. Why the time lag? I think Japanese food has become more popular over the years in the US, and people are more familiar with miso soup. I was surprised and pleased that the US publisher used the name “shijimi” in the title. The book was named one of the Best Children’s Books of 2006 by the Bank Street College of Education. I am also very happy that Singing Shijimi Clams is included in One More Story, a US based online library.
I am amazed how the shijimi clams, the witch and Toraji the cat keep traveling. Perhaps the witch hasn’t lost her sparks! 

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L-R: me, award-winning novelist Holly Thompson, and Naomi Kojima. Click on the link to be taken to the Launching of Project Splash! Asia.

This is Naomi holding up Singing Shijimi Clams which is part of the Project Splash! Asia collection and bibliography of water-themed books from and about Asia.

Click here to see a review done by Kirkus Reviews and here to read Publisher Weekly’s review.

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Read-a-Latte Challenge: 132 of 150

1 Comment on [Meet the Storyteller] A Witch who Lost her Sparks in Singing Shijimi Clams plus Q and A with Naomi Kojima

  1. A cute and heartwarming book about a witch and her cat, who can’t quite bring themselves to eat the singing shijimi clams. I loved reading this to my daughter and she loved it too. Illustrations are beautiful as well. Highly recommended.

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4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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