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もしかしたら名探偵
Perhaps, Great Detective
作:杉山 亮(すぎやま あきら, Sugiyama Akira) 
絵:中川 大輔(なかがわ だいすけ, Nakagawa Daisuke)
Level 3 本, 146 pages, 2,200 words (est.) ★★★★★
Part of the ミルキー杉山の名探偵シリーズ (Milky Sugiyama, Great Detective Series)
Hardcover

I read Akira Sugiyama’s わんわん探偵団 (The Doggie Detective Agency) some time ago and loved it, so when Emmie sent me a picture of the books she was sending me that included one by the same author, もしかしたら名探偵, it made it even harder to wait for them to arrive! When I read it, I found that it was a level 3 book, unlike わんわん探偵団 which is level 4, and better yet was part of a series. Before I was fifteen pages in, I knew this one would be getting its own review.

The series is narrated by ミルキー杉山 (Milky Sugiyama), a struggling detective who’s separated from his wife and has to take odd jobs to make ends meet. In this volume, he tackles three cases: a stolen painting, a lost book and a mysterious cipher. Each story is divided into two parts: the “case” and the “solution,” and if you’re on the ball, you should be able to come up with the answer before Milky does. (I got one out of three, not being particularly perceptive when it comes to mystery stories, even ones for kids.)

Difficulty

I’ve read a lot of level 3 books at this point, and in my experience even the good ones are rather on the childish side, but even though this book is decidedly for children it’s about an adult, so it has a more sophisticated voice — for example, the reader is informed (slightly obliquely) about Milky’s marital and financial woes. The sentences are fairly complex, but they’re sparse and thoroughly illustrated, so they don’t feel overwhelming and unknown words can generally be guessed from the pictures. There are around 2,200 words altogether, which is more than most level 3 books, but the book is just longer than most level 3 books; I think that the generous amount of illustrations and the relatively small number of words per page put it slightly on the easy side of level 3. Still, it didn’t strike me as condescending or tedious, just somewhat simplified and even purposely laconic at times. I imagine that’s not an easy balance for a writer to strike, and if there are many other level 3 books out there that pull it off I haven’t found them yet. Because of the level, length and content, I think this would be an ideal series for someone who was moving away from picture books and towards chapter books. (And I’d love to recruit the author to write graded readers in Japanese…)

The illustrations are quirky and fun, and there’s a lot of writing in the background on signs, posters and so on, so even though there’s not a good deal of kanji in the text itself and what there is is basic, there’s some incidental kanji practice to be squeezed out of the pictures.

Sample text
This is four pages of text; all kanji have furigana in the original text.

おれの名は ミルキー杉山。
たんていだ。
いつもわくわく していたいから、このしごとを やっている。
こんどの事件は、こうだ。
きのう、びじゅつかんから 絵が、一まい ぬすまれた。
ガードマンが ここ一時に みたときには、あったのに、二時には、きえていたのだ。
びじゅつかんには まどがない。
だから、はんにんは おきゃくのふりをして いりぐいちから、はいってきたに ちがいない。
一時から二時のあいだに おきゃくは、四人しか いない。
となると、どろぼうは そのなかにいるってわけだ。

How to get it

Here’s the list of all the books in the series:
もしかしたら名探偵, あしたからは名探偵, そんなわけで名探偵, まってました名探偵, あめあがりの名探偵, いつのまにか名探偵, どんなときも名探偵, なんだかんだ名探偵, かえってきた名探偵, よーいどんで名探偵, ひるもよるも名探偵

Please refer to my post about buying books online for advice. This series seems to be fairly cheap used, if you can get it that way, and some of them are in stock at Kinokuniya (for $16-18) and at YesAsia (for $18.49); there’s always Amazon (watch the shipping and handling fees) and bk1 as well.

You can see if any of them are at a library close to you with worldcat.

かいけつゾロリ やせるぜ!ダイエット大さくせん
Incredible Zorori: I’m Going To Slim Down! The Great Diet Strategy
作/絵:原 ゆたか(はら ゆたか, Hara Yutaka)
Level 3 本, 103 pages, 3,000 words (rough estimate; see difficulty section) ★★★★★
Hardcover

When I got this book out from the library it was low on my priority list, because I thought it was some preachy book designed to explain calories and nutrition to kids with the help of cute cartoon animals. After all, there was the title, and the back cover also had a chart showing a list of foods, their calories and how long you’d have to do various exercises to burn them off. Bored now, I thought as I evaluated the cover, but two seconds of flipping through it revealed that it was one of my prized level 2.5 books. I’ve officially classified it as a level 3 book just due to its length and relative complexity, but it has a lot in common with level 2 books: tons of illustrations, big, spaced text written mostly in hiragana, with barely any kanji and furigana even for katakana words. I can finish a book like that in an evening and if I was Queen of the World I’d have a new one every night, so even though it looked lackluster it went right into my bag. If I had taken two minutes and not two seconds, I would have seen that I had judged it quite wrongly: it’s not a nutrition textbook, it’s an adventure story! It turned out to easily be my favorite of the level 2.5 and 3 books I’ve read so far.

I didn’t know it at the time, but there’s a whole series of books about Zorori, an anti-hero trickster fox, and his two followers, the boars Ishishi and Noshishi. (The word for boar in Japanese, it should be noted, is inoshishi.) At the moment there’s a great Wikipedia page about Zorori that I do hope won’t be bothered by Wikipedia guardians anytime soon. In this book, the trio realize that they’ve gained an awful lot of weight lately and resolve to diet, but first they misinterpret a dozen different diet books, then spend all their money on scams; desperate for cash and diet tips, they take on the job of delivering three weight-loss gadgets to a “Madame Diet” for her daughter’s birthday party. When they run into a giant catfish along the way, those gadgets get put to some decidedly non-traditional uses…

Difficulty
I found it hard to classify this book as either level 2 or 3; I think of it as level 2.5 but I thought that as long as I’m going with this classification system it should be one or the other. It shares in common with other advanced level 2 books large, spaced text, lots of illustrations and almost no kanji, but I think the length and complexity of vocabulary makes it more of a level 3 book in the end. You’ll note that the estimated word count is two or three times higher than those of other advanced level 2 books I’ve read. (Because there are four text sizes, some pages have considerably more text than others; my estimate is that there are about 30 words per page on average, but it’s probably a fairly low guess.) Even though the only kanji used are ones taught in first grade, there were a good number of words that I didn’t know, and at least one pun that I could almost see sailing right over my head. For an extensive reader at an intermediate level or for one who can cope with a whole lot of unknown words this series should offer a lot of value, but don’t be tricked into thinking these books are easy just because they look like they should be.

The format is nice for an extensive reader, too: I’m not really into manga as reading practice material because I’m not really into manga they’re centered on images and dialogue and I like to have all the surrounding words and descriptions a book provides, but this one reads something like a manga-book hybrid. The majority of the book is in prose with illustrations, but some illustrations have a comic-style arrangement, and while part of the dialogue is mixed into the prose lots of it is given in speech bubbles. The result still feels more like a book than a comic to me, but it’s dynamic, playful and easy to follow.

Running the sample text through Reading Tutor, its vocabulary level is rated “normal” and of the five kanji, two are old-JLPT level 3 and three are old-JLPT level 4.

Sample text
Note: All kanji and katakana have furigana in the original.
「ああ、この 町 すべての たくはいびんやさんに ことわられてしまった この しごと、 あなたたちに つとまりますかねえ。」
「しつれいな! この かたを どなたと こころえるだか? けわしい 火山から きょうだいな 「きょうりゅうの たまご」を はこびだした ことの ある ゾロリせんせとは、 この かたで あるだ!」
#くわしいことは「かいけつゾロリまもるぜ!きょうりゅうのたまご」をよんでみてね。
「それは しつれいいたしました。 じつは はこんでいただきたい ものは、マダム・ダイエットの ひとりむすめ、 スリムおじょうさまの たんじょうびプレゼントなのです。 ただし、こんや 八じまでに、むこうぎしの おやしきの うら口へ、この ボートで こっそりと というのが、じょうけんです。」

How to get it
On Amazon.co.jp, this book (as well as the other Zorori books) is ¥945, or $11.41 at the time of this writing. (That’s before the handling fee of ¥300 – raising the price to $15.03 – and shipping.) Kinokuniya has it for $15.75. Even better, they have a lot of the Zorori books in stock at around the same price; just search for かいけつゾロリ for the full selection.

There’s only one Japanese graded reader out there that I’ve found so far, so I really like the idea of finding a series you like at a level you can read and sticking with it – which is a big part of why this book gets its own review and other books I’ve liked just as much just get a mini-review. I find myself eyeing a link on Kinokuniya’s page where a set of 44 Zorori books can be had for a mere ¥39,600. At the time I write this, that’s $477.93, which is about $277.93 more than I ought to be spending on books all this year. Still, I can’t help but do the math and wonder if $10.86 per book might not be a real bargain… It won’t actually happen, but it’s a pleasing daydream. Even more pleasing is the daydream where I pick up a bunch of used Zorori books cheaply — the low prices for second-hand books on Amazon.co.jp have not escaped my notice — but I don’t think I could swing that without navigating some sort of proxy service or burdening one of my friends… Well, it’s not like I’ve run out of library books yet!

こどもマナーとけいご絵じてん
Children’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Manners and Keigo (Polite Language)
監修 (Editors): 坂東 眞理子(ばんどう まりこ, Bandō Mariko)、蒲谷 宏(かばや ひろし, Kabaya Hiroshi)
Level 3 絵辞典, 173 pages, 7,000 words (est.) ★★★★★
Paperback

This book provides very detailed, yet simply written instructions to kids on subjects such as table manners, proper behavior at the doctor’s, how to talk politely to teachers, how to get along with other people and so on. As you may have guessed from my previous review, I like to get simpler books from the library, but actually spend my money on books that stand up to rereading and provide a lot of reinforcement of new vocabulary within themselves. With this book, if you have ever had a problem with the 〜したりする pattern you will perfectly understand its use within ten pages, because instructions like “don’t make a lot of noise or run around in the library” are usually given in that form. Furthermore, the word きちんと — properly — will be burnt into your brain. Because of the extensive illustrations and the short, simple texts, even words you don’t know at all are pretty easy to guess from context, and because of the amount of repetitive text, those words often show up again and become easier to remember each time.

On another level, I find the process by which children learn polite behavior in any culture fascinating. I grew up watching how my mom and dad behaved in public and my own behavior was corrected by teachers, my family and so on, so of course I’m comfortable with my manners as an adult American. Still, I always felt not quite right while I was studying in Japan, and since I only stayed for a semester, that was hardly long enough to lose that feeling. Much of the content in this book is universal: don’t throw trash on the street, don’t run around during funerals, say “thank you” and be careful with other people’s possessions. Still, there are a lot of bits of etiquette unique to Japan: when and how deeply to bow, chopstick manners that go beyond those staples Japanese homestay students learn, “don’t stick your chopsticks straight into the rice” and “don’t pass food from your chopsticks to someone else’s” and even what to do with your hands if you’re sitting in seiza. (Girls are supposed to keep their hands in their laps, flat and arranged in a 八 shape, and their knees together; boys have their knees spread apart a little, with their hands in a loose fist on each knee.) If you had grown up Japanese, your mother would have pushed your little head down into a correct bow; short of being reborn or finding a friend who’s comfortable with criticizing an adult as if they were a child, a straightforward text is your best bet to understand the forms. Even if you aren’t planning on having to get along in Japanese society any time soon, it’s greatly amusing to see the “don’ts” of polite society laid out so bluntly. I do love the section on cleaning up one’s language — for example, don’t say うん to your teacher, say はい, and drop でかい for 大きい. The process of how non-native speakers learn polite language is completely different from the experience a Japanese kid is going to have, and it’s fascinating to see it from the other side. (I, too, have heard the tales of non-Japanese job seekers getting jobs because their keigo was better than that of the native Japanese graduates; I don’t know if that’s a real thing, or if it is the kind of story we language learners tell each other to lift our collective spirits.)

I also wonder to what degree the book is idealized; how much of it is what parents really want from their kids, and how much of it is how the authors think kids should behave? One section says「おやすみなさい」と言ってねる (Say “goodnight,” and go to sleep) which is reasonable, but shows an illustration of a child bowing as she says goodnight to her dad. Is it common for kids to bow as they say goodnight? Is it a hyper-correct reflection of (perhaps perceived) upper-class behavior, or general idealized behavior? Is it a personal dream of the author’s or illustrator’s, as yet unrealized by any kid anywhere? There is a very interesting lang-8 diary — or series of lang-8 diaries, perhaps — to be made out of my questions about the book; I haven’t been writing much for the past couple of months, but I am bound to go on a Japanese writing kick at some point, and when I do I will report back.

Apparently one of the writers, Mariko Bandō, is the president of Showa Women’s University and a prolific writer; I found this New York Times article about a book of advice for modern Japanese women and this article about her background and philosophy helped to put this book in context somewhat.

Difficulty
The estimated count of 7,000 words is a definite lowball – each set of two pages has a short section directed towards the parents, and I didn’t count those. (I estimate the おうちのかたへ sections would add another 9,000 words all together, bringing the estimated total closer to 16,000. They are not horribly hard (although with no furigana they’re officially off the extended reading classification chart) so consider the book doubly useful for an extensive reader: it has something to go back to later when your skill has improved. There are so many pictures that even if you didn’t know Japanese, you could generally tell what’s being explained. By Hitosugi and Day’s classification system, I think it’s about a 3, but it has a rather healthy amount of kanji (I imagine so that it’s accessible to young kids, but still useful to older ones).

Running a random page through Reading Tutor, the vocabulary level was rated “easy” and there were 18 different kanji used; going by the old JLPT difficulty levels, 22% were level 2, 44% were level 3 and 33% were level 4.

Sample text
Note: All kanji have furigana in the original text.

友だちとうまくいかないときは
きのう、すずきくんとけんかをした。今、どんな気持ちでいるかな。きょう、「ごめんなさい」と言ってみよう。
相手の気持ちを考える
「なんでおこっているんだろう」「どうしてこまっているんだろう」と友だちの気持ちを想像してみよう。うまくいかなくなったときのことを思い出して、相手の立場だったらどう思うか、自分がしたことや気持ちがどうだったか考えてみようね。
相手に聞いてみる
友だちがどんなふうに考えているのか、すなおに聞いてみよう。そして、自分の気持ちも伝えよう。もしかしたら、おたがいにかんちがいをしていることがあるかもしれないよ。どうしてうまくいかなくなったのか、いっしょに考えてみよう。

Where to find it
I picked this one up at Kinokuniya as well, and you can order it online from them for $42 plus shipping. You can get it through Amazon.co.jp as well, where it is ¥2,520 new ($30.41 at the time of writing).

I haven’t looked very much into websites for children about manners, but you could try こどもEマナー教室 (Children’s Classroom for Good Manners). Or, post a comment if you run across any other useful ones!