I will start out by saying that I love picture books and that I will buy them for academic collections even if we don’t have a separate juvenile collection. In the field of East Asian studies, research on children’s literature has been very slow to gain any traction and I find it a great pity. It is a particularly rich field to harvest, whether you focus on portrayals of war, social justice, wordplay, or Buddhist traditions, and it is possible for undergraduates to read Japanese picture books and write about them intelligibly in English.
There is now excellent research being done on Japanese picture books by scholars such as Heather Blair at the Indiana University Bloomington who write about Buddhism and Hell in children’s books. Another scholar to keep an eye out for is Mika Endo, currently an independent scholar, who is doing work on 3.11 and how nuclear disasters are portrayed in children’s books. Kathryn Tanaka has also done work on picture books about Hansen’s disease. I look forward to reading or listening to talks about many more topics and hope that there will be regular panels at Japanese studies conferences on children’s literature.
But this blog is about reading and collecting materials specifically for L2 Japanese readers. And that is where it starts to get tricky. In general, Japanese picture books present a number of challenges to L2 readers.
1. Lack of kanji
2. Lots of unknown vocabulary
3. Use of slang/dialects
4. assumes background knowledge/cultural background that we don’t have and often don’t get through university textbooks
All of this is true, and all of it is important. To have a better understanding of current Japanese culture, I think it is really advantageous to have read similar books and to understand the ethos that underpins those works. And so, like someone learning to walk again after a stroke or a major accident, it is possible to go through the motions of learning to walk again and be able to do it much faster than when we were babies.
When people ask me about picture books and tadoku, I suggest that picture books require more support than traditional graded readers. Picture books are best read aloud – by an instructor or a more seasoned reader. It helps to stop and point out images that reflect the words or scene being depicted (like a parent or teacher would with children), so that the readers have a clear image in their minds of the story. Alternatively, the instructor/advanced reader could read the entire book aloud without stopping (this is traditional read aloud technique yomikikase 読み聞かせ). I don’t think this is as effective for L2 readers because they could be missing the key terms in the text and not be able to follow along at all. Then it could be read again, using shadowing techniques where both readers read together at the same time. And finally, the reader could read it alone fluently. This is a pretty standard pedagogical technique for improving reading fluency. It could also be tedious, so it really depends on the reader.
Without a clear understanding of the story, a complete text of hiragana can be frustrating to an L2 reader. Picture books try to compensate for that by using wakachigaki 分かち書き (word division) so that words appear as units rather than a long string that needs to be deconstructed. Students who read picture books tell me that once they know the vocabulary, they are comfortable with hiragana and can read fluently because having the hiragana makes it easier to read aloud.
Recently I found out that if I watched picture books being read aloud on Youtube, I could turn on the closed caption feature and see the text produced in kanji. There are mistakes though, because the closed captioning is done automatically and slight mispronunciations could generate the wrong kanji or artificial intelligence chooses a different kanji with the same pronunciation. In spite of the few errors, having access to picture books being read aloud in Japanese (and being able to see the text at the same time) is a very powerful tool. I also believe it is a copyright violation and at some time the videos will be taken down, but until they are I will continue to use them privately.
In a perfect world, I would love to see instructors use picture books in classes – maybe at a third year level – so that the students could read and have the opportunity to talk about or write about what they have read. It would be possible to tackle slang/dialects as well as cultural assumptions/portrayals with more nuance this way. Depending on the emphasis of the class, students could read in Japanese and write/discuss in English or any combination. Activities could include reading a book in dialect and rewriting into standard Japanese, or changing a dialogue into a description. So many options!
Picture books tend to be 32, 46 or 64 pages long. The amount of text per page varies widely, but in most cases the books are meant to be read in one sitting. That is very satisfying – particularly to an L2 reader. Picture books are also a really good option for students who are more used to reading manga or using video as part of their studies.
What is interesting about Japanese picture books is that they are not all intended for the very young. There are fabulous picture books written for all ages in Japan. Some stay faithful to the concept of hiragana only – such as the kaidan ehon 怪談えほん series by Iwasaki Shoten. Many of us involved in tadoku have a knee jerk reaction to place these picture books in very low levels (like level 1 or 2) but in fact they often have rich vocabulary and use of onomatopoeia that language learners find quite challenging. In my library I have moved these books up to a higher level based on student feedback.