Currently viewing the tag: "Japanese children’s books"

かがくのとも (Children’s Science Companion) is a monthly picture book series for 5-6 year olds. I’ve often thought that children’s books about science, nature and daily life would be more appealing to adult language learners than fairytales and stories about happy little foxes baking cake, and the かがくのとも series is precisely what I was envisioning. They present information about animals, the human body, arts and crafts and much more in a way that’s genuinely fun to read, accessible to beginning readers and useful, both in terms of introducing and reinforcing vocabulary that will certainly show up in more advanced material and learning things you may not have known before.

The かがくのとも books are all about 28 pages long, with varying difficulties and lengths – from 300 to 1000 words long – and they’re heavy on the pictures. You probably all have seen one of these books already: “Everyone Poops” by Taro Gomi. Others in that vein include はなのあなのはなし (The Story Of Nostrils) and あたまのなか (Inside Your Head). There’s also books about specific animals like moles and bats, stories about daily life such as こんなおみせしってる? (Do You Know This Store?), ones that are more like regular picture books but with a nature-related angle and books that walk the reader through a particular craft or activity. For example, おめん つくってあそぼう (Let’s Make And Play With Masks) shows how to make an oni mask, which not only is good for practicing how to understand directions and learning vocabulary about creating things, but is inherently awesome.

If you’re just starting extensive reading and you have a decent grounding in basic grammar and vocabulary, I think the かがくのとも books would a fantastic place to start: their content is exceptionally well done, they’re very understandable and well-supported with pictures, and every single one I’ve read so far has been worth my time.

If you can get them used, they’re relatively cheap – generally around 250-800 yen – but even new they’re not horrible, closer to 900-1000 yen. I’ve written a lot about various sites from which you can order new or used books; just offhand bk1 looks like it has a lot of them new, and the Amazon marketplace has a lot of used ones, but the best I’ve found so far is Ehon Seikatsu which has a number of them for between 105 – 300 yen, and – bonus! – will ship overseas. One advantage these books have over most picture books is that they’re softcover, which drives the shipping cost down. Rather unusually, there is information about many of the newer ones (2001 on) in English, so if you find one you want, it may be possible to read more about it before you order it.

Although these are books, they come out monthly like magazines do, so it might be possible to special order them through Kinokuniya as if they were magazines. I haven’t tested that theory, and if it can be done I couldn’t say how much it might cost. If someone does contact Kinokuniya to ask about it, let me know the outcome!

This same publisher, Fukuinkan, publishes other monthly series of softcover children’s books; I haven’t read a book from each series, but I have read enough to feel comfortable recommending them anyway! The first two series are, like かがくのとも, related to science in some way, while the other series are just regular picture books.

I wonder if Fukuinkan would consider releasing any of these as e-books? These are basically perfect for language learners, and it’s not like most five-year olds are running around with Kindles, so it wouldn’t cut into their target audience…

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.

This is an incomplete list of all the Level 4 books available from the Seattle Public Library; it’ll be updated as I keep reading them.

From Extensive Reading in Japanese, the definition of a Level 4 book:

Level 4: Full texts with kanji and kana. Most kanji have furigana. The content is much richer and the length of a story could go over several volumes, but ample pictures help the readers. Most film comics are at this level. Japanese native readers would be eight to twelve years old.

I’ve added Amazon links for the benefit of having title images and just in case anyone wants to subsidize my reading, but if you’re interested in ordering any of these, I’d also recommend you look them up on Kinokuniya’s website and compare shipping costs. Also, all title translations are my own unless otherwise indicated, names are family name first, then given name, and 作 and 絵 mean “author” and “illustrator,” respectively.

雪の森のリサベット
Lisabet and the Snowy Woods
作:アストリッド・リンドグレーン(Astrid Lindgren)
絵:イロン・ヴィークランド(Ilon Wikland)
Level 4 本, 56 pages, 2,100 words (est.)

Astrid Lindgren also wrote the Pippi Longstocking series which I loved as a kid, so I snapped it up. Lisabet and Alva, her family’s maid, go to buy Christmas presents, and while Lisabet is waiting outside for Alva to buy her present, she gets the idea to ride on the back of a passing sleigh from a boy she knows. But the sleigh goes much further than she expected it would… It’s not nearly as lighthearted as the Pippi Longstocking books, but it’s lyrical and heartwarming. Incidentally, the original title is “Titta, Madicken, det snöar” (translated by one blogger as “Look, Madicken, it’s snowing!”); Madicken is Lisabet’s older sister, and although it’s not as if she has no role in the story, Lisabet’s adventure is the most compelling part, so I rather prefer the Japanese title (for once).

グッバイ!グランパ
Goodbye, Grandpa!
作:服部 千春(はっとり ちはる, Hattori Chiharu)
絵:鈴木 修一(すずき しゅういち, Suzuki Shūichi)
Level 4 本, 79 pages, 5,000 words (est.)

One night Sayaka’s grandfather, who passed away long before she was born, starts appearing in her bedridden grandmother’s room, and for some reason, she’s the only one who can see him. Worse still, he insists on following her around… This was one of the more complicated books I’ve read since I started this project, and I loved it, I read it in a night. Apparently it won a contest for children’s science fiction books, as well. By the way, this book marked something of a personal triumph for me: it’s the first time one character has used a word, another character has asked for a definition and I didn’t need to have it explained too. (The word in question was ハイカラ.)

保健室のクッキー
Cookie, the Nurse’s Office Dog
作:上条 さなえ(かみじょう さなえ, Kamijō Sanae)
絵:相澤 るつ子(あいざわ るつこ, Aizawa Rutsuko)
Level 4 本, 96 pages, 4,500 words (est.)

When Cookie, a Chihuahua who lives at an animal hospital, bites two people to try to avoid having his ears cleaned and his nails trimmed, his name is mud — and the only reasonable thing to do is to send him to work at a school nurse’s office and hope he changes his wicked ways. I’m a little baffled by the logic there, but it all works out, and it’s a really fun little book. Second one I’ve read that was narrated by a dog — I could probably start a collection. By the way, I didn’t know that the device I only know as the “Cone of Shame” is called an Elizabethan collar in English as well, so I cracked up when I figured out what エリザベスカラー referred to.

わんわん探偵団
The Doggie Detective Agency
作:杉山 亮 (すぎやま あきら) 
絵:廣川 沙映子(ひらかわ さえこ)
Level 4 本, 142 pages, 4,000 words (est.)

I was totally charmed by this book, and since it’s part of a larger series I might give it its own write-up at some point. It’s about a dog trainer named Spitz (that is, スピッツ; his t-shirt says “Spit’s Dog Training” but I choose to view it as an error, because he’s never gonna get the girl with a name like Spit), his next-door neighbor Miss Hanae, and all the dogs he takes care of; together, they fight crime! There’s three separate short stories, with a bit of information about various dog breeds at the end of each one.

ティアラちゃんのアン・ドゥ・トロワ 3
Tiara’s un, deux, trois (3)
作:しめの ゆき(Shimeno Yuki)
絵:小野 恵理(おの えり, Ono Eri)
Level 4 本, 71 pages, 3,000 words (est.)

Tiara is a bunny taking ballet classes; this is a slow-paced book about her interactions with her classmates and their struggles with ballet and friendship. This is the third book in the series, and although the previous books were summarized, it did make the book feel less compelling; if you happen to like ballet and/or cute animals, though, it might be a good one to order and start from the beginning. I’ve got to say, the dancing animal I most wanted to read about was the alligator Simone, who had no speaking lines but appears in some of the illustrations. There’s all these lithe, adorable gazelles, bunnies, lambs and so on, and then you have a grim-looking alligator with little stubby arms and a tutu. I’d read it, wouldn’t you?

森からのてがみ 2
Messages from the Forest #2 (official title)
文:ニコライ・スラトコフ(Nikolai Sladkov)
訳:松谷 さやか(まつや さやか, Matsuya Sayaka)
絵:あべ 弘士(あべ ひろし, Abe Hiroshi)
Level 4 本, 56 pages, 1,800 words (est.)

Nikolai Sladkov was a naturalist writer, so these little stories about animals are a cut above all of the other animal books I’ve been reading: they feel slightly like fables, and there’s none of this “oh, how nice, Usako-chan and Kuma-kun are playing together” business. I class it as a Level 4 book because it uses more kanji, a smaller font and has no spaces between words, but it’s fairly short and split into three stories, and I think it and the other two books in the series would be a good choice for my fantasy extensive reading library that, as of yet, I only carry around in my head.

This is an incomplete list of all the Level 3 books available from the Seattle Public Library; it’ll be updated as I keep reading them.

From Extensive Reading in Japanese, the definition of a Level 3 book:

Level 3: Kana and kanji are mixed, but the book is mainly written in hiragana. Furigana is provided for any kanji in the text. The content is not only fiction, but may also contain facts or accounts of some natural phenomena. Pictures are the main feature of the book. Japanese native readers would be six to ten years old.

I’ve added Amazon links for the benefit of having title images and just in case anyone wants to subsidize my reading, but if you’re interested in ordering any of these, I’d also recommend you look them up on Kinokuniya’s website and compare shipping costs. Also, all title translations are my own unless otherwise indicated, names are family name first, then given name, and 作 and 絵 mean “author” and “illustrator,” respectively.

チクチクのおばけりょこう
Chikuchiku’s Ghost Safari
作/絵:舟崎 克彦(ふなざき よしひこ, Funazaki Yoshihiko)
Level 3 本, 77 pages, 850 words (est.)

The hedgehog Chikuchiku, back from exploring, tells all his animal friends about the places he found… and the ghosts inhabiting them. Or at least, that’s what he thought they were, but some of his friends are a little skeptical. This one had a surprising amount of words I didn’t know for a shortish level 3 book – lots of exploring-related verbs, perhaps.

光のゲンちゃん
Lil’ Genji
作:花散里(はなちるさと, Hanachirusato)
絵:西村 緋禄司(にしむら ひろし, Nishimura Hiroshi)
Level 3 絵本, 47 pages, 1,100 words (est.)

The young Hikaru Genji wishes to see if people are still talking about him in a thousand years, so he takes a time-traveling oxcart to present-day Kyoto, where he dances for the crowds, transforms a girl in jeans into a Heian-era princess and turns into a phoenix. (A 鳳凰, technically.) Yeah, seriously. I never thought my interest in The Tale of Genji would lead me here. There’s a song that goes with it, too. (The sheet music is in the back of the book.)

ちいさいドットちゃん
Little Dot
作/絵:堀川 波(ほりかわ なみ, Horikawa Nami)
Level 3 本, 63 pages, 1,000 words (est.)

Little Dot’s birthday is tomorrow! Until then, she spends time with her mom and dad doing chores, then visits her friend Sara and her twin brothers. When she gets bigger, she’s going to do all sorts of wonderful things like drive a car and drink coffee with her dad. I guess this is sort of like a … slice of life book? It’s really charming.

チョコレートのまち
Chocolate City
作/絵:深見 春夫(ふかみ はるお, Fukami Haruo)
Level 3 本, 63 pages, 850 words (est.)

Since the residents of Chocolate City are all made of chocolate, all it takes is a little heat from the hairdryer at the beauty parlor and they can remake their heads into any shape they want. Most people choose to be beautiful or handsome, but some are a little more creative: a carpenter makes his head into a house, a musician makes hers into a violin and among children there’s a fad for animal heads. But some shapes come with unintended side effects…

1ねん1くみ1ばんくいしんぼう
The Biggest Glutton In My First Grade Class
作:後藤 竜二(ごとう りゅうじ, Gotō Ryūji)
絵:長谷川 知子(はせがわ ともこ, Hasegawa Tomoko)
Level 3本, 71 pages, 1,900 words (est.)

That would be Kurosawa-kun, who begs to be put in charge of overseeing the school lunch for his class. At least, you’d think it would be, given that he’s prone to saying things like “I live for curry rice” — but maybe the title really belongs to someone else, someone no one would suspect? Apparently there’s a whole series of these books, too. I really liked the peek into the first-grade classroom, and the way the teacher interacted with the students.

くやしっぽ
Kuya the Tail
作:丸井 裕子(まるい ひろこ, Marui Hiroko)
絵:長 新太(ちょう しんた, Chō Shinta)
Level 3 本, 77 pages, 1,400 words (est.)

A tanuki’s tail is fed up with being attached to such a boring tanuki, who never does anything except go fishing and bites it whenever it complains. But it makes its escape when its owner accidentally shuts the door on it, then it recruits a wolf’s tail so they can live the unattached tail dream lifestyle together. But can the tails of two such different animals get along? しっぽ (shippo) is “tail,” and I wonder if くやしっぽ (kuyashippo) is a pun of some sort — I’ll ask one of my friends and report back.

おにいちゃん
Big Brother
作:後藤 竜二(ごとう りゅうじ, Gotō Ryūji)
絵:小泉 るみ子(こいずみ るみこ, Koizumi Rumiko)
Level 3 本, 63 pages, 550 words (est.)

Kōsuke’s little sister never calls him “big brother,” just always by his name, and then she goes and gets him in trouble with their mom. So what’s a guy to do but run away from his home? Luckily he’s got a special hideout all prepared… This same author also wrote 1ねん1くみ1ばんくいしんぼう, but this one is much shorter and simpler.

おにのめん(落語絵本)
The Demon Mask (Rakugo Picture Book)
作/絵:川端 誠(かわばた まこと, Kawabata Makoto)
Level 3絵本, 24 pages, 700 words (est.)

Books with a lot of dialect are just the worst for someone like me. I go from thinking I’m getting to some level of competency to feeling happy to have figured out that おかん means “Mom.” But if you do like dialect, there’s a whole series of these rakugo picture books, and the illustrations are awfully cute. In this one, a girl working as an apprentice at a big store has a mask that looks just like her mother back home, but someone switches it out with a demon mask as a prank.

うたのすきなかえるくん
The Frog Who Loved To Sing
作/絵:加古 里子(かこ さとし, Kako Satoshi)
Level 3 本, 71 pages, 1,700 words (est.)

Kaeru-kun’s beloved Kaeru-chan is sick, and he can’t make enough money for food and medicine just by singing and playing his guitar on the street, so he finds a string of odd jobs unil he gets himself mixed up with some sort of froggie yakuza group. I may have been a little bored until I got to that part, but all of a sudden I was interested again… There are a lot of books that would be improved with the addition of a froggie yakuza group.

にんじんぎらいのうさこさん
The Carrot-Hating Bunny
作:垣内 磯子(かきうち いそこ Kakiuchi Isoko)
絵:松成 真理子(まつなり まりこ, Matsunari Mariko)
Level 3 本, 101 pages, 3,400 words (est.)

Rather a hefty little book for level 3, and kind of meandering, but quite sweet. A bear wants to find work as a dentist, but somehow the area’s bunnies, squirrels and so on get queasy at the idea of a big bear poking around in their teeth and business is nonexistent. He hears about a bunny called Usako who hates carrots and only eats chocolate, and wants to do her the favor of taking care of her no-doubt horrendous teeth, but none of his plots to get her through the door work at all…

盲導犬アンドリューの一日
A Day In The Life of Andrew The Guide Dog
作:松井 進(まつい すすむ, Matsui Susumu)
絵:鈴木 びんこ(すずき びんこ, Suzuki Binko)
Level 3 絵本, 27 pages, 2,400 words (est.)

My third book narrated by a dog — I really do need to find more! I didn’t know the ins and outs of how guide dogs work for their owners, so it was educational for me as well. Maybe it’s a little naive, but I was surprised that people with guide dogs can be refused service in Japanese hotels and restaurants.

カレーライスおかわり!
More Curry Rice, Please!
作/絵:土田 義晴(つちだ よしはる, Tsuchida Yoshiharu)
Level 3 本, 77 pages, 900 words (est.)

This was another meandering little level 3 book about cooking lots of curry rice for the other animals working to take in the rice harvest. I’m such a sucker for books about animals cooking, and this book made me want to try to make fried eggplant and tomato curry myself, even though I’m generally relatively indifferent to eggplant.

ひみつたんていワンダーモール とめろ!せきゆパニック
Secret Sleuth Wonder Mole: Stop Right There! Oil Panic
作/絵:はら ひろあき & バースディ (Hara Hiroaki and the members of Birthday)
Level 3 絵本, 80 pages, 2,400 words (est.)

This is another Zorori-style book that’s partly prose and partly presented manga-style; if you liked the Zorori series, these might be worth a try too. There’s a modest set of four in the series, but they have the disadvantage of not being in stock at Kinokuniya at the moment. (They also have the disadvantage of not starring Zorori, but so do a lot of books.) In this one, Mogi (the “wonder mole” of the title) uncovers a plot to control the world’s oil.

ピエロのおくりもの
The Clown’s Gift
作:おのでら やえ(Onodera Yae)
絵:木村 智美(きむら さとみ, Kimura Satomi)
Level 3 本, 79 pages, 1,800 words (est.)

For his birthday, Takeshi gets a toy clown holding a violin who plays music if you wind him up. As it happens, Takeshi longs to learn how to play the violin, but he’s too ashamed to ask his parents to let him learn something like that because all of his friends are into baseball, soccer and so on. But the toy clown gives him the courage to follow his dream… A very sweet little book, and surprisingly, although it’s got several marks of low-level 3 books (large text, spaces between words, almost no kanji), it has almost no pictures.

キンギョのてんこうせい
The Transfer Student Goldfish
作:阿部 夏丸(あべ なつまる, Abe Natsumaru)
絵:村上 康成(むらかみ やすなり, Murakami Yasunari)
Level 3 本, 77 pages, 1,500 words (est.)

The loach (for future reference: 泥鰌) Dojio is the outcast of Donut Pond, and he prays that he can make just one friend. Then, a goldfish comes splashing down from the sky… But will she want to be friends with him, or will she prefer all the other fish that make fun of him? I thought I knew where this one was going, and I so didn’t. It’s a little refreshing to read a kids’ book where the moral of the story isn’t “It’s good to fit in and make friends with everyone” but something more like “Seriously, screw all those jerks.”

“大きな家”を見てごらん!
Come See The “Big House!”
Level 3 本, 63 pages, 1,300 words (est.)
The “Big House” is a retirement home, a cheery and active one in the middle of town with kids coming to visit. Its founder created it because of a story he heard when he was a young boy, told to him by an old man about the time when he was a young boy and found his grandma in a disturbing, bleak retirement home.

やまだまやだあっ!
I’m Maya Yamada!
作:杉本 深由起(すぎもと みゆき, Sugimoto Miyuki)
絵:長谷川 知子(はせがわ ともこ, Hasegawa Tomoko)
Level 3 本, 48 pages, 1,700 words (est.)

I’m disappointed there’s not a whole series about this little chatterbox kid with the palindrome name (when written with the last name first, that is), because I would totally read them. It’s kind of like the book about the biggest glutton in class (of which there is a series, which I’d rather like to read, illustrated by the same person incidentally) — the inner lives of first graders are really kind of fun.

なんでもぽい!
Throw It All Away!
作:山中 恒(やまなか ひさし, Yamanaka Hisashi)
絵:赤坂 三好(あかさか みよし, Akasaka Miyoshi)
Level 3 本, 48 pages, 1,200 words (est.)

If I didn’t think of this one as “whimsical” I would have to think of it as “portrait of a budding sociopath,” so I choose to go with “whimsical.” Mariko wishes her annoying mom and brother would just go away, along with all of her toys that she’s being forced to clean up; as it happens, she finds a way to get everything she wants.

かいけつゾロリ たべるぜ!大ぐいせんしゅけん
Incredible Zorori: Eat Up! The Speed Eating Championship
作/絵:原 ゆたか(はら ゆたか, Hara Yutaka)
Level 3 絵本, 103 pages, 4,000 words (est.)

Another Zorori book♪ This one seemed more difficult to me than the previous one, though, and definitely more difficult than most level 3 books — lots of words I didn’t know, and more words in general. In any case, if anyone was wondering just how Zorori and the flunkies got as fat as we saw them in “Incredible Zorori: I’m Going To Slim Down! The Great Diet Strategy,” well, now we have an answer: massive amounts of curry, ramen, udon and so on. By the way, how many spicy food items can you identify in this picture? My score is 20/24. (My husband says I frequently make that face when I’m cooking, too. What can I say, I like adding spices to things.)

かいけつゾロリ カレーvs.ちょうのうりょく
Incredible Zorori: Curry vs. ESP
作/絵:原 ゆたか(はら ゆたか, Hara Yutaka)
Level 3 絵本, 107 pages, 4,000 words (est.)

More good times with my favorite trickster fox in the whole world♪ Zorori somehow acquires the ability to bend spoons just by saying “I want to eat curry!” (I’m not sure if there is a reason for this that I missed somehow, or this kind of thing just happens in his world); he joins forces with three kids, each with their own psychic power, in order to find out the secrets of a curry factory that just opened nearby.

わらいボール
The Laughter Ball
作:赤羽じゅんこ(あかはねじゅんこ, Akahane Junko)
絵:岡本順(おかもとじゅん Okamoto Jun)
Level 3 本, 77 pages, 1,300 words (est.)

When Yūya, looking for some equipment for gym class, comes across a bit of graffiti depicting a ninja, she comes to life and gives him the task of collecting people’s laughter for her; she’s spent so much time training that she’s forgotten how to have fun.

やまねこようちえん
Wildcat Kindergarten
作:那須田 淳(なすだ じゅん, Nasuda Jun)
絵:武田 美穂(たけだ みほ, Takeda Miho)
Level 3 本, 79 pages, 1,400 words (est.)

Sakura doesn’t like going to kindergarten, but when her cat tells her about the kindergarten he has to go to, Wildcat Kindergarten, she’s curious about it, so they go together early one morning to learn all the things necessary to make kittens into proper cats.

やどかりどんのやどさがし
Don The Hermit Crab Finds A New Shell
作:大島まや(おおしままや, Ōshima Maya)
絵:高部晴市(たかべせいいち, Takabe Seiichi)
Level 3, 77 pages, 1,700 words (est.)

Don’s old shell is getting tiresome, so off he goes to find a new one; he comes across a turtle shell (still occupied by a turtle), a glass bottle, a shell too big for one hermit crab and other possible houses.

きんぎょひめ
The Goldfish Princess
作:とだかずよ(Toda Kazuyo)
絵:おぐまこうじ(Oguma Kōji)
Level 3 本, 64 pages, 2,500 words (est.)

A sweet, curiously disjointed little book about a goldfish who becomes a human girl. It’s a little longer than a lot of my level 3 books, and very cheerful, something like a series of animated shorts in book form ; it merrily skips from episode to episode, and I’m reading along and thinking “Hey, I wanted to know what happened next!”

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!

This is an incomplete list of all the Level 5 books available from the Tacoma Public Library; it’ll be updated as I keep reading them.

From Extensive Reading in Japanese, the definition of a Level 5 book:

Level 5: Beginning at this level, material is quantitatively and qualitatively different from the lower levels. Level 5 books usually have more than 100 pages and fewer illustrations. Some kanji have furigana, but not all of them. Stories are fully developed and more detailed. Japanese native readers would be ten to thirteen years old.

I’ve added Amazon links for the benefit of having title images and just in case anyone wants to subsidize my reading, but if you’re interested in ordering any of these, I’d also recommend you look them up on Kinokuniya’s website and compare shipping costs. Also, all title translations are my own unless otherwise indicated, names are family name first, then given name, and 作 and 絵 mean “author” and “illustrator,” respectively.

ジローのあくしゅ
A Handshake from Jirō
作:岸川 悦子(きしかわ えつこ, Kishikawa Etsuko)
絵:土田 義晴(つちだ よしはる, Tsuchida Yoshiharu)
Level 5 本, 125 pages, 5,700 words (est.)

My first level 5 book since I started this project, it wasn’t precisely hard, just long and with a higher proportion of unknown words than I tend to like. I understood the content and most of the details but missed just enough to annoy me, so apparently a book this level is currently about my limit, and I will try to stick to books that are a little easier for a while. I wonder if most level 5 books are about on this level, or if it’s a bit on the easy side since the narrator is a dog?

I’m actually feeling a bit of relief about reading these higher-level books because I missed having kanji around. For a Japanese language learner, used to thinking about kanji mastery as a benchmark, books in all hiragana are lonely; besides, kanji are fun, remove ambiguity and make reading quicker. It is kind of a joke among people who do translation for rom hacking; a hacker with little experience with Japanese will think saying “Translating this game should be easy! There’s no kanji!” is actually a selling point to prospective translators. To better ones than me, perhaps.

This is an incomplete list of all the Level 4 books available from the Tacoma Public Library; it’ll be updated as I keep reading them.

From Extensive Reading in Japanese, the definition of a Level 4 book:

Level 4: Full texts with kanji and kana. Most kanji have furigana. The content is much richer and the length of a story could go over several volumes, but ample pictures help the readers. Most film comics are at this level. Japanese native readers would be eight to twelve years old.

I’ve added Amazon links for the benefit of having title images and just in case anyone wants to subsidize my reading, but if you’re interested in ordering any of these, I’d also recommend you look them up on Kinokuniya’s website and compare shipping costs. Also, all title translations are my own unless otherwise indicated, names are family name first, then given name, and 作 and 絵 mean “author” and “illustrator,” respectively.

鉄のキリンの海わたり
The Iron Giraffe’s Sea Crossing
作:あさば みゆき
絵:石崎 正次(いしさき しょうじ)
Level 4 絵本, 32 pages, 1,100 words (est.)

This story of a crane (the “iron giraffe” of the title) who rescues a little boy from kidnappers and sacrifices himself to bring him back home is a bit of a tearjerker, but I guess everyone’s happy in the end. Becoming a living coral reef is probably less exciting than working in a port, but it is probably just as interesting a way to live — I like to think, at any rate, otherwise I may have trouble sleeping. This one apparently won a children’s book award sponsored by Nissan.

メル友からのメッセージ
Messages from My E-Mail Friend
作:増原 亜紀子(ますはら あきこ, Masuhara Akiko)
絵:内藤 あけみ(ないとう あけみ, Naitō Akemi)
Level 4 本, 62 pages, 2,900 words (est.)

A fourth grader, recently transferred to a new school, has trouble making friends and withdraws to an online bulletin board, where she lies about how great her life is. But when she reads a post by another transfer student who’s only recently been able to make friends, she drops the act and asks for help. They become e-mail friends, and realize they live close enough to each other to meet, but as it turns out, they had a previous connection… Part of it is told in first-person prose, but much of it is told through e-mails between the two girls. It’s the 11th winner of the Firefly Award (ホタル賞), a prize for books with an anti-bullying theme.
It’s hard to say what level this one is; I wouldn’t call the pictures “ample,” but it’s not extremely long or complex. There’s small illustrations every couple of pages that take up maybe a third of the page; it’s nothing like a manga. One caveat: it does have a maddening cliffhanger for an ending.

ぼくはにんじゃのあやし丸
I’m Ayashi-maru, the Ninja
作:広瀬寿子(ひろせ ひさこ, Hirose Hisako)
絵:梶山俊夫(かじやま としお, Kajiyama Toshio)
Level 4 本, 83 pages, 2,800 words (est.)

Kai’s grandpa has an important secret to pass on to him: although Kai’s lost his memories of the past, they’re both ninjas who arrived in the present day through a mysterious cave while trying to save a princess from a burning, beseiged castle. (“Grandpa can’t really tell the difference between reality and those novels he used to write anymore,” Kai’s aunt mentions. “Has he said anything strange to you?” “No,” Kai responds; after all, he thinks, there’s nothing strange about ninjas.)

It started out simply, but around the middle, when Grandpa is talking about the old days, there’s a lot of vocabulary that both Kai and I were having trouble with. Kai asked for definitions, but somewhere along the line his grandpa started getting grumpy at having to explain words like 不甲斐ない, 寸前 and 疲労困憊 and just started glaring until Kai was quiet again — ninjas are not very patient when asked to serve as living dictionaries, apparently. I went back and looked them all up after finishing the book the first time, and that part made much more sense.

This is an incomplete list of all the Level 3 books available from the Tacoma Public Library; it’ll be updated as I keep reading them.

From Extensive Reading in Japanese, the definition of a Level 3 book:

Level 3: Kana and kanji are mixed, but the book is mainly written in hiragana. Furigana is provided for any kanji in the text. The content is not only fiction, but may also contain facts or accounts of some natural phenomena. Pictures are the main feature of the book. Japanese native readers would be six to ten years old.

I’ve added Amazon links for the benefit of having title images and just in case anyone wants to subsidize my reading, but if you’re interested in ordering any of these, I’d also recommend you look them up on Kinokuniya’s website and compare shipping costs. Also, all title translations are my own unless otherwise indicated, names are family name first, then given name, and 作 and 絵 mean “author” and “illustrator,” respectively.

しまうまのしごとさがし
The Zebra’s Job Hunt
作/絵 トビイ ルツ(Tobii Rutsu)
Level 3 絵本, 95 pages, 1,200 words (est.)

I was really charmed by this book, which tells the story of a young zebra wondering what he should be when he grows up. Initially he wants to be a black panther spy, but his friends point out that his stripes would make that a little difficult, so he sets out to the big city and interviews bakers, interior designers, a scholar of animal behavior (the Lion, who spent his time as the king of beasts observing the lives of other creatures) and a striped traffic crossing. This is a prequel to a previous book, どうぶつびょういん (Animal Hospital); the library doesn’t have it, but it appears that our zebra eventually became a doctor. (I was glad to figure this out, because I was wondering if he ever found a job he liked, then I saw the other book on the dust jacket and wondered about the connection. I couldn’t really tell if this zebra was the son of the doctor zebra in the other book or if the zebra became the doctor until I looked up the other book online.)

わにのニニくんのゆめ
The Dream of Nini-kun the Crocodile
作:角野 栄子 (かどの えいこ, Kadono Eiko)
絵:にしかわ おさむ(Nishikawa Osamu)
Level 3 本, 64 pages, 1,200 words (est.)

And just what is Nini-kun’s dream? Perhaps you can guess from the cover. This business of having a crocodile walking around the zoo dressed in human clothing causes a few problems for the beleaguered zookeeper… (Not in terms of children eaten – no, the other animals get jealous.)

子ザルのいちねん
A Year in the Life of a Baby Monkey
作/写真:福田 幸広(ふくだ ゆきひろ, Fukuda Yukihiro)
Level 3 絵本, 56 pages, 500 words (est.)

I’ll spare you the suspense: as it happens, a year in the life of a baby monkey is extraordinarily cute. Playing with their buddies, chilling in onsens… it all looks pretty sweet! There are also a couple of pages at the end with more detailed information on monkeys, as well as how not to act when you go see them. (They’re not included in the word count; I estimate those couple of pages tack on another 750 words, and they’re about level 4 difficulty.)

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)

Since this is part of a larger series that I thought would be particularly useful to extensive readers, I gave it its own review. To sum it up in a sentence, it’s a playful adventure story about Zorori and his followers Ishishi and Noshishi, following their efforts first to lose weight, then to deliver a set of diet gadgets to a birthday party. I really enjoyed it, and haven’t ruled out that 44-book series yet…

おひめさまパンダになる?
Will You Become A Panda, Princess?
作:まだらめ 三保(まだらめ みほ, Madarame Miho)
絵:国井 節(くにい せつ, Kunii Setsu)
Level 3 本, 88 pages, 1,000 words (est.)

I originally classified this one (and some others) as level 2 books because there’s pictures on every page, almost no kanji, large text and spaced words but was uneasy with that because of the length, so I switched it to level 3. If you wanted to buy some fairly easy level 3 books that would stand up to re-reading (assuming you have a high tolerance for princesses) it might be worth investigating this series; there’s eleven other books about the same character listed in the back flap. In this one, the princess springs her panda friend from the zoo and takes him to Panda Country, running into pirates on the way. The art reminds me of those scary black and white 1930s cartoons.

くんくまくんとおやすみなさい
Goodnight, Kunkuma-kun
作:今村 葦子(いまむら あしこ, Imamura Ashiko)
絵:菊池 恭子(きくち きょうこ, Kikuchi Kyōko)
Level 3 本, 63 pages, 1,600 words (est.)

This is another one that has a lot in common with level 2 books, but is long enough to make it into level 3; it even has three separate stories about Kunkuma-kun and his family, the text isn’t huge and it’s part of a larger series. The content was cute, but didn’t make a huge impression on my mind — I guess I am not all that much on teddy bears, somehow.

こまじょちゃんとあなぼっこ
The Little Witch and Bokko the Digger
作:越水 利江子(こしみず りえこ, Koshimizu Rieko)
絵:山田 花菜(やまだ かな, Yamada Kana)
Level 3 本, 79 pages, 1,600 words (est.)

This one was another “level 2.5″: that is, a book that has a lot in common with picture books, but is much longer and denser. It’s one of my favorites that I’ve read so far, because it’s got some pretty, figurative language and a silly, engaging story with magic and cats. I might need the other three at some point.

This is an incomplete list of all the Level 2 books available from the Tacoma Public Library; it’ll be updated as I keep reading them.

From Extensive Reading in Japanese, the definition of a Level 2 book:

Level 2: Mainly hiragana and katakana text. If there are kanji, furigana is given for each kanji. The text is longer but still contains a lot of pictures to aid student comprehension. Japanese native readers would be five to eight years old.

I’ve added Amazon links for the benefit of having title images and just in case anyone wants to subsidize my reading, but if you’re interested in ordering any of these, I’d also recommend you look them up on Kinokuniya’s website and compare shipping costs. Also, all title translations are my own unless otherwise indicated, names are family name first, then given name, and 作 and 絵 mean “author” and “illustrator,” respectively.

はしれ!たくはいびん
Hurry, Express Home Delivery Company!
作:竹下 文子(たけした ふみこ, Takeshita Fumiko)
絵:鈴木 まもる(すずき まもる, Suzuki Mamoru)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 200 words (est.) ★★★★★ Hardcover

Really cute picture book about how a home delivery company gets a box of apples from point A to point B. I really liked the illustrations and lingered on them for some time– there were lots of cats hanging around 宅配便 vehicles for some reason. I’ve got a textbook for business Japanese I keep meaning to spend more time with, and for some reason 営業 just wouldn’t stick in my head before, but now I’ll always associate it with this book because the delivery trucks arrive at an 営業所.

とびだせ!ガチャピン〜ムックはかせのはつめいひん
Fly Into Action, Gachapin! ~ Dr. Mukku’s Invention
作:ガチャピン・ムック (Gachapin and Mukku)
絵:まめこ (Mameko)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 450 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

I guess this Gachapin critter is kind of a thing? It’s not something I had heard of, but now it makes a little more sense, as the book seemed to presuppose a little knowledge about Gachapin’s world, but I didn’t see any mention of any other books in the series. Whatever the case, this is a tremendously fun and colorful little book, and if there’s anything cuter in the whole world of picture books than a happy reformed garbage spirit with a kerchief and a snail-shaped vacuum cleaner, I have yet to see it.

みんなだいすき!チョコレート
Everyone Loves Chocolate!
監修: 古谷野 哲夫(ひらの てつお, Hirano Tetsuo)
Level 2 絵本, 30 pages, 1,000 words (est.) ★★★★☆ Hardcover

It has certainly been a while since I would have read a book like this in English, so I only had a passing familiarity with the process of chocolate making; this book lays it all out in a really cute way. It’s good about explaining the specialized vocabulary, as well; one page explains that the chocolate is ねる – in this context, mixed over and over – and a factory worker explains to the little chocolate bar avatar that it’s not ねる as in sleeping, but a different ねる.

ねこのシッポ
The Cat’s Tail (or Shippo the Cat)
作/絵:星野 絵里子(ほしの えりこ, Hoshino Eriko)
Level 2 絵本, 30 pages, 150 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

Another charming level 2 book, this is about a cat named Shippo (which means tail) who happens to have a tail so long it can be tied into a bow, used to rescue other cats from trees and so on. This one won the Tully’s Picture Book Award in 2004, and it does have remarkably cute cat illustrations.

まよなかさん
Mr. Midnight
作/絵:早川 純子(はやかわ じゅんこ, Hayakawa Junko)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 300 words (est.) ★★★★☆ Hardcover

Mayonaka-san runs a midnight coffee shop, and one night he has to deliver a large order of coffee to a group observing the night sky. Really trippy illustrations, but they’re cute, not trippy in a bad way (and there have been at least two books I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to finish because the pictures were trippy in a bad way, so I know what I’m talking about).

CO2のりものずかん
Vehicle CO2 Illustrated Guide
作/絵:三浦 太郎(みうら たろう, Miura Tarō)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 225 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

An illustrated comparison of how much CO2 various vehicles (and humans) produce. Not much in the way of content, and the vocabulary is accordingly basic, but the illustrations are pretty snappy. I rather like these 図鑑… what can I say, I’m easily attracted by pictures.

くりの木のこと
The Chestnut Tree
作:島本 一男(しまもと かずお, Shimamoto Kazuo)
絵:ひろかわ さえこ(Hirokawa Saeko)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 400 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

A rather sweet story about a chestnut tree at a nursery school that had to be cut down, upsetting the kids; everyone coped by planting new trees, bringing in a Shinto priest to help conduct a ceremony for everyone to say goodbye to the tree, and singing a song about the tree.

チョコレート だいすき
I Love Chocolate!
作:大西 寿(おおにし ひさし, Ōnishi Hisashi)
Level 2 絵本, 28 pages, 750 words (est.) ★★★★☆ Hardcover

Not to be confused with みんなだいすき!チョコレート, this book, which is also about the processing of cocoa beans into chocolate, is actually a step or two easier, so if I had seen it first I would have read it first. Where the other book focuses on how chocolate factories work, this takes a bit of a hands-on approach, and they really compliment each other. For example, this one actually shows how you can process the cocoa beans by hand: steps 4, 5, 7, 9 and 11 all basically read “Then grind them some more,” making すりつぶす a very easy word to remember.

花のかみかざり
Flower Comb (official translation)
作:いもとようこ(Imoto Yōko)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 350 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

For a cute kids’ book done up in watercolor with bunnies, this is a deeply strange book. A bunny who just became a nurse is too freaked out by one of her wolf patients to fulfill her dying wish, and apparently ends up regretting it for what must have been years afterward. The lesson? Just as Metafilter reminds us, everyone needs a hug.

くまこちゃんのみずたまはんかち
Kumako-chan’s Polka-Dot Handkerchief
作/絵:なかや みわ(Nakaya Miwa)
Level 2 絵本, ? pages, 150 words (guess) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

All the polka dots escape from Kumako-chan’s handkerchief after she washes it. At a certain point the cuter level 2 books blur into each other, so there’s not much to remark on here. But it was tremendously sweet! I couldn’t find it when I went back to the library, so I will look for it later, and for now the 150 words is just a guess.

おれさまのもり
My Forest
作/絵:キクタ ミネコ(Kikuta Mineko)
Level 2 絵本, 35 pages, 400 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

It’s a very cute little book about finding family and friends, but it will forever be marred for me by my husband’s telling of it. He was wondering why Japanese kids don’t get confused by some books reading front to back and others reading back to front, and he picked this one off the top of my stack and told the story backwards, pretending he didn’t know where it was supposed to start. He doesn’t know Japanese, so it was just based on the pictures, and it involved the main character stress-eating, getting kidnapped by a creepy old guy and dying and going to heaven. It comes off as a little sweeter if one reads it the right way, I assure you.

ゆきの ひの おきゃくさま
The Snowy Day Visitor
作/絵:木村 泰子(きむら やすこ, Kimura Yasuko)
Level 2 絵本, 30 pages, 300 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

This is another basic book that doesn’t lend itself to a lot of discussion, but the artwork is adorable. (Shame Amazon doesn’t have the cover online…) One interesting point is the illustration of the clock that guides the progression of the seasons: the numbers are mostly accompanied by Japanese seasonal symbols, with a little Christmas tree for the 12:00 / December slot.

バーバちゃんのおみまい
Baba-chan’s Hospital Visit
作:神沢 利子(かんざわ としこ, Kanzawa Toshiko)
絵:山脇 百合子(やまわき ゆりこ, Yamawaki Yuriko)
Level 2 絵本, 30 pages, 300 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

For a little level 2 picture book, it had a surprising amount of words I didn’t know, mostly related to the pie that Baba-chan makes for her friend (and then eats herself). Weighing out flour, marinating cherries, having just one slice left over and so on takes a lot of specialized vocabulary. And then by the time the said hospital visit actually happens, the pie doesn’t even exist anymore, so there you go.

ほしのこルンダ — くろいほしのナニイ
Star Child Lunda ~ Nanii of the Black Star
作/絵 やなせ たかし(Yanase Takashi)
Level 2 絵本, 63 pages, 750 words (est.) ★★☆☆☆ Hardcover

I guess this Lunda kid has a modest series to his name, but to tell the truth I was tremendously bored by his adventure and read through it just to say I did. To be fair, I would likely have enjoyed it more if I was a five-year old boy. It reminded me of the bit in Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga about what kids like.

うしさん おっぱい しぼりましょ
Let’s Milk Mrs. Cow!
作:穂高 順也(ほたか じゅんや, Hotaka Jun’ya)
絵:竹内 通雅(たけうち つーが, Takeuchi Tsūka)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 400 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

You know how I’ve been known to call picture book art “trippy in a bad way?” Well, here’s what I mean. As a punishment for tickling me, I made Brian look through this book.
“That’s some questionable art,” he said.”
“Questionable, yes.”
“Actually, questionable isn’t quite the right word. I know the question. It’s a very simple question. WHY GOD WHY”

The text is equally trippy: a cow’s milk takes on the flavor of anything you feed it, which is all well and good when it’s a handful of strawberries, but not so adorable when it’s forcefeeding the cow a vat full of potatoes, onions and carrots so that she can produce stew for fifty ungrateful children. This taxes her so much she withers away to almost nothing, but it’s OK because she swallows a band of traveling musicians to regain her strength. I’d like to think, at least, that this makes cow-related vocabulary very easy for tiny children to remember. “Pasture? To wither? To milk a cow? To play an instrument inside a cow? Those words are a snap. I learned them when I read this book about a demon cow from Hell.”

プンクトとことりたち
Punkuto and the Baby Birds
作/絵:池内 梢(いけうち こずえ, Ikeuchi Kozue)
Level 2 絵本, 30 pages, 350 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

Very cute and cheerful little picture book about a bunch of baby birds and their flightless mentor; won the 2004 Tully’s Picture Book Award. I like the flat, colorful art style, but however it looked, it’d be a real joy after the crazy cow book. *shudder* *shiver* Did I mention the illustration with the cow producing ice cream? You’re going to have to find that one on your own.

ほっきょくがとけちゃう!
The North Pole is Sinking! (official title)
作/絵:イーサン・キム・マツダ、マイケル・マツダ(Ethan Kheim Matsuda and Michael Matsuda)
Level 2 本, 39 pages, 1,400 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

When Santa’s factory starts tipping to the side on account of the melting ice, it’ll take more than tying it to balloons and rubber duckies to keep it upright; Santa and his reindeer have to brave the smog to learn about global warming and alternative energy sources.

いっすんぼうし
The One-Inch Boy
作:こわせ たまみ(Kowase Tamami)
絵:高見 八重子(たかみ やえこ, Takami Yaeko)
Level 2 絵本, 26 pages, 250 words (est.) ★★★★☆ Hardcover

A classic Japanese fairytale about an old couple who wish for a child and get one so tiny he uses a bowl for a boat and a needle for a sword. He wants to become a warrior, and finds a job in the capital as a noble girl’s playmate. (The illustration in this version of the two of them playing cat’s cradle together is adorable.) Eventually, he defeats a demon, who drops a magic mallet; the power of this mallet makes him grow to normal size. So if you remember your Secret of Mana properly, you should be thinking of the Midge Mallet, which can be used to turn your characters back to normal size if they’ve been shrunken. This reference pops up in some other games, too, but that’s the one I remember best.

トコとグーグーとキキ
Toko, Googoo and Kiki
作:村山 亜土(むらやま あど, Murayama Ado)
絵:柚木 沙弥郎(ゆのき さみろう, Yunoki Samirō)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 450 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

The peaceful lives of Toko the toucan and Googoo the sloth are disrupted when Kiki the chameleon falls out of the Animal Circus airplane into their jungle.

たまちゃんとボウルさん
Little Tama and the Bowl Family
作/絵:山田 詩子(やまだ うたこ, Yamada Utako)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 250 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

Tama-chan’s parents are going away for a week, but they’ve enlisted the family of bowls next door to bring her food every day: salad one day, strawberries the next, and who knows what the day after that. Charming, very girly and relatively simple level 2 book.

クマさんのトラック
The Bear’s Track
作:篠塚 かをり(しなづかかをり, Shinazuka Kaori)
絵:いしい じゅね(Ishi June)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 200 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

A monkey finds a piece of string and uses it to pretend he’s a bus; if you’ve ever had problems remembering 降りる and 乗る this book can help set you straight, as the monkey picks up and drops off lots of passengers. I liked the playful, cheery art for this book.

お月さまにげた
The Moon Ran Away
作/絵:谷川 晃一(たにがわ こういち, Tanigawa Kōichi)
Level 2 絵本, 36 pages, 250 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

One stormy night, the moon walks into a bar — it’s so cloudy out that he can afford to take a day off, and he drinks the bartender’s best wine and gets good and drunk. (Yes, it’s stated that obviously; there’s one big difference between Japanese kids’ books and American ones.) The bartender sees a way to turn this to his advantage… Because of the content and word count I’m still counting this one as level 2, but it has more kanji (with furigana) than most level 2 books.

花のこども
Children of Flowers (official title)
作:小原 稚子(おはら わかこ, Ohara Wakako)
絵:黒田 征太郎(くろだ せいたろう, Kuroda Seitarō)
Level 2 絵本, 28 pages, 250 words (est.) ★★☆☆☆ Hardcover

A bilingual, poetic book about flowers, stars, love and so on that is, to me, slightly harder than level 2 books that are straight up stories. I’m not a big fan of bilingual books because I feel like a crucial part of extended reading is that deep-down feeling of either knowing you understood it or you didn’t; if you don’t understand something, it’s better to puzzle it over a bit without the temptation of a translation right there.

ゆめにでてあげたい
My Dreams, Your Dreams (official title)
作:田中 章義(たなか あきよし, Tanaka Akiyoshi)
絵:とりごえ まり(Torigoe Mari)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 400 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

Another bilingual book, this one is about Tibetan refugee children, and it’s affecting and poetic. The afterword adds about 100 words or so, plus a little context.

のら犬ウィリー
The Stray Dog (official title)
作:マーク・シーモント(Marc Simont)
訳:三原 泉(みはら いずみ, Mihara Izumi)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 200 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

A family finds a dog in a park and plays with him, but when the day is over and the kids want to take him home, the parents tell them it’s time for the dog to go back to his owner. “But what if he doesn’t have an owner?” they wonder…

いすがにげた
The Chair Ran Away
作:森山 京(もりやま みやこ, Moriyama Miyako)
絵:スズキ コージ(すずき こうじ, Suzuki Kōji)
Level 2 絵本, 40 pages, 500 words (est.) ★★☆☆☆ Hardcover

I learned to read when I was very, very young — long before I learned to deal with things that disturbed me. The consequence was that some books frightened me so much that my mom had to tape them up and hide them. Apparently the life skill of “dealing with disturbing things” is still not one I’ve mastered, because I tried to read this book three times before I finally finished it. Who knew chairs and bunnies could look so wrong? Seriously, this bunny is nightmare fuel.

ぼくのしっぽは?
But What About My Tail?
作/絵:下田 智美(しもだ ともみ, Shimoda Tomomi)
Level 2 絵本, 28 pages, 675 words (est.) ★★★★★ Hardcover

A young boy wonders why he doesn’t have a tail, and goes out to borrow various tails from other animals so he can test them out. (The sound of a tail being removed and replaced is カッチ, by the way.) This is a level 2 book that has a lot of extra information (that I didn’t count in the word count — maybe another 500 words?) such as how to make different kinds of tails, a summary of what various animals use their tails for, and a “What Type of Tail Suits You?” quiz. (Answer questions like “Do you get more excited about New Year’s than Christmas?” and “Do your farts make a “プゥー” sound, or a “スー” sound?” and get your animal type.)

金貨をくれるへび
The Coin-Giving Snake
作:尾上 尚子(おのえ たかこ, Onoe Takako)
絵:寺岡 正道(てらおか まさみち, Teraoka Masamichi)
Level 2 絵本, 24 pages, 400 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

A story from the Panchatantra, an Indian collection of fables, that’s very similar to The Goose That Laid The Golden Egg.

トゲトゲぼうや
The Prickly Boy
作:今村 葦子(いまむら あしこ, Imamura Ashiko)
絵:西村 繁男(にしむら しげお, Nishimura Shigeo)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 700 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

A hedgehog wants to make friends more than anything; his parents warn him that others will probably be turned off by all his needles, but he says “Didn’t you tell me that it’s what’s inside that’s important?” But with his needles, he can’t join in on games of “Oshikura Manjyū” and leapfrog. However, it turns out his needles do come in handy sometimes…

月夜の誕生日
The Moonlight Night Birthday
作:岩瀬 成子(いわせ じょうこ, Iwase Jōko)
絵:味戸 ケイコ(あじと けいこ, Ajito Keiko)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 900 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

Mari loves her birthday presents, a new dress and a star pin, so much that she goes to sleep wearing them; on that night, she joins a series of animals to watch the lunar eclipse and gives a present to each one of them. A dreamy little book, with adorable pictures.

あなたが生まれた夜に
On The Night You Were Born (official title)
作/絵:ナンシー・ティルマン(Nancy Tillman)
訳:内田恭子(うちだきょうこ, Uchida Kyōko)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 250 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

This is the kind of picture book that’s more for the parents than for the kid, and it’s less of a straightforward story than most level 2 books; this kind of picture book can be good for exploring more poetic language.

さみしがりやのサンタさん
Lonely Santa
作:内田麟太郎(うちだりんたろう, Uchida Rintarō)
絵:沢田としき(さわだとしき, Sawada Toshiki)
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 250 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

It turns out that sometimes even Santa feels a little down after all of the pre-Christmas excitement, and he can’t even play himself a song on his harmonica because it’s broken. But a surprise guest manages to cheer him up…

This is an incomplete list of all the Level 1 books available from the Tacoma Public Library; it’ll be updated as I keep reading them.

From Extensive Reading in Japanese, the definition of a Level 1 book:

Level 1: Hiragana and katakana only. The text is very short, and has one-word sentences, phrases, and some complete sentences. There are plenty of visual aids to help convey meaning. Japanese native readers would be three to six years old.

I’ve added Amazon.co.jp links for the benefit of having title images and just in case anyone wants to subsidize my reading, but if you’re interested in ordering any of these, I’d also recommend you look them up on Kinokuniya’s website and compare shipping costs, because it’s likely to be less expensive that way. Also, all title translations are my own unless otherwise indicated, names are family name first, then given name, and 作 and 絵 mean “author” and “illustrator,” respectively.

そよそよとかぜがふいている
The Breeze Blows Softly
作/絵:長 新太(ちょう しんた, Chō Shinta)
Level 1 絵本, 31 pages, 70 words (est.) ★★★★☆ Hardcover

I observed to Brian after reading this book that one special quality of completely demented picture books is that they help beginning readers learn to trust their emerging senses of grammar. That is to say, I generally think that I know my particles and verb endings and nouns well enough, but were I to read a book without pictures and with very long sentences and big words that was about a cat with huge paws who went around remaking the heads of other animals into gigantic onigiri… well, there’s a chance I would wonder if I was misunderstanding something. This is part of why I believe that even easy books written for babies are as valuable as books written specifically to support adults learning another language: dipping into fantastic language using basic grammar and vocabulary, backed up by pictures, helps the readers confirm that their grammar knowledge can handle any crazy thing an author throws at them. Anyways, yes – this book is about a cat that shapes the heads of elephants, lions, crocodiles and so on into onigiri. Apparently the sound of shaping an onigiri into that perfect rounded triangle shape with one’s tail is ギューッ、ギューッ、ギューッ.

おともだち
Friends
作/絵:ささき ようこ(Sasaki Yoko)
Level 1 絵本, 20 pages, 40 words (est.) ★★☆☆☆ Hardcover

It’s good when everyone plays together, don’t be afraid to talk to people, friends are great, blah blah blah, if I wasn’t trying to read all of them even I’d skip some of the level 1 books. Oh well – it probably took me more time to estimate the number of words than it did to read it in the first place.

語りかけ絵本1さいの本どうぶつ
Read-Aloud Picture Book: The 1-Year Old’s Animal Book
作:今泉 岳雄(いまいずみ たかお, Imaizumi Takeo)
Level 1 絵本, 40 pages, 150 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Softcover

Waaay under my reading level, but what the heck, I am always up for cute pictures of puppies and songs about monkeys. (Like I say, I have no shame. In the pursuit of fluency, everything is useful!) There are suggestions on each page for the parents, such as “Point to each animal and say what it is,” which offer slightly more challenge, adding about 150 more words to the total. Anyways, from here on I’ll always associate 真ん丸 with a kitten rolled into a little ball.

ねずみくんとおてがみ
Nezumi-kun and the Letter
作:なかえ よしを(Nakae Yoshio)
絵:上野 紀子(うえの のりこ, Ueno Noriko)
Level 1 絵本, 32 pages, 90 words (est.) ★★★★★ Hardcover

There were a couple of ねずみくん books in the Ann Arbor library, too, so I was happy to see this one, and actually I thought this one was really cute: Nemi-chan sends Nezumi-kun a letter that seems to say “I hate you,” but it turns out that she sent all their other friends strange letters, too, and when they put them all together it becomes an invitation for them all to play together next week. Until then, she and Nezumi-kun go off to play together, and the other friends, feeling left out, write back a letter cut into pieces in the same way, asking her to play with all of them and not just Nezumi-kun. But they forget to mail one of the pieces, changing the whole meaning… Whoops. I think the only word in here I hadn’t seen before was 重たい.

はじめてのたべものずかん
Baby’s First Illustrated Encyclopedia of Food
作/絵:宮本 えつよし(みやも とえつよし)
Level 1 絵本, 18 pages, 300 words (est.) ★★☆☆☆ Hardcover

OK, talk about low-hanging fruit, this book hardly even counts… One thing that made this book worth reading, though, is that it included a bit of katakana weirdness I’ve never seen before. Each item of food has its Japanese name written next to it, in katakana or hiragana, then its English name and a katakana representation of the English pronunciation. In a nice touch, the stressed syllables are red and slightly bigger. Avocado, already represented in Japanese by katakana (アボカド) has its pronunciation listed as ェアヴァカドウ. (I can’t help but think you’d get further with アボカド than by trying to draw out ェアヴァカドウ, but it is certainly a good try.) In any case, I can’t recall ever seeing a word, even for pronunciation purposes, that has an ェ at the beginning. Incidentally, my heart goes out to anyone, misled by this book, who goes forth into the English speaking world asking for ウァーラ and expecting to get water in return.

だれのあしあと
Whose Footprints Are These?
作/絵:ふくだ としお(Fukuda Toshio)
Level 1 絵本, 30 pages, 45 words (est.) ★★☆☆☆ Hardcover

Pretty much just what you think it would be. Everyone looks at each other’s footprints, and then they go eat soup. You can see how a steady diet of these kinds of books would set up a child really well for knowing all their verbs and basic grammar a couple of years down the line, but I am glad that the point of extensive reading for adult language learners isn’t to mimic every detail about how children learn to read.

はるちゃんの ぼんぼりぼうし
Haru-chan’s Bobbly Hat
作:とくなが まり(Tokunaga Mari)
絵:とよた かずひこ(Toyota Kazuhiko)
Level 1 絵本, 24 pages, 150 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

Haru-chan’s mom knitted her a hat, and it’s so great that everyone – cows and hedgehogs alike – wants to try it on. I mean, who wouldn’t? It looked like so much fun I was coveting a red hat with a pom-pom on it for a couple of minutes there.

赤ちゃんと話そう
Talk With Your Baby
作/絵:のぶみ(Nobumi)
Level 1 絵本, 18 pages, 30 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

This book operates on two levels: it’s half baby book with text like “Munch, munch, gulp! Are you still hungry?” and half instructions to the parent on how to communicate with basic hand signals, such as clapping your hands together twice to mean “I’m full.” The instructions to the parent probably add about another hundred words, and aren’t at all hard.

となりのイカン
My Neighbor Ikan
作:中山 千夏(なかやま ちなつ, Nakayama Chinatsu)
絵:長谷川 義史(はせがわ よしふみ, Hasegawa Yoshifumi)
Level 1 絵本, 30 pages, 140 words (est.) ★★☆☆☆ Hardcover

Books with non-standard Japanese drive me batty – it is that whole low ambiguity tolerance thing popping up again – and even though this one is a level 1 picture book, it wasn’t an exception. The イカン of the title means “no,” and it’s used in that sense, but it’s also the name of one of the characters. I have just enough familiarity with Kansai-ben to know that あかん (another character) is “no” too, but I didn’t think to connect it with イカン, and I didn’t really quite understand what the point was. Would I have eventually figured it out if I hadn’t seen the one-line English summary pasted to the dust jacket, or if I wasn’t yet able to read the more advanced afterward? I wonder. It doesn’t help that the art is that trippy-in-a-bad-way that would have freaked me out as a one-year old. Still, if you’re particularly interested in how kids are exposed to dialects you might want to seek this one out.

ぼく、うまれたよ
I’ve Been Born!
作/絵:みうら し〜まる(Miura Simal)
Level 1 絵本, 22 pages, 200 words (est.) ★★★★☆ Hardcover

A baby sea turtle oversleeps and doesn’t hatch with all the others, so he’s got to find his mom… all the other little sea creatures have moms, so where’s his? I keep overusing the word “cute” for all these picture books, but forgive me – the little baby sea turtle paddling through the water followed by a trail of sound effects — ぷくぷくぷくぷくぷくぷくぷくぷくぷくぷく — is cute!

ともともの みてみて ほらね
Tomotomo’s Look, look, over here!
作/絵:きたやま ようこ(Kitayama Yōko)
Level 1 絵本, 22 pages, 36 words (est.) ★★☆☆☆ Hardcover

And what are we looking at, one might ask? Animal babies pooping proudly, that’s what. It wouldn’t be a proper collection of Japanese kids’ books without at least one book about using the potty. Rabbit poop sounds like ぽろぽろ; elephant poop like どっかん; mice poop like ぱらぱら. Now you know, and you can’t un-know it, either.

ともともの にこっ あっはっは
Tomotomo’s Smile, ah hah hah
作/絵:きたやま ようこ(Kitayama Yōko)
Level 1 絵本, 22 pages, 40 words (est.) ★★☆☆☆ Hardcover

Getting dressed and ready to leave the house is apparently a very cheerful process for little Tomotomo and his clothes. Things are nice, here in the world of Level 1.

ショコラちゃんのスキーだいすき
Chocolat Loves To Ski
作:中川 ひろたか(なかがわ ひろたか, Nakagawa Hirotaka)
絵:はた こうしろう(Hata Kōshirō)
Level 1絵本, 24 pages, 60 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

Chocolat and her dog Vanilla hit the slopes in this colorful little book. There are seven of these books about Chocolat; possibly of interest for a level 1 collection.

ないた
I Cried
作:中川 ひろたか(なかがわ ひろたか, Nakagawa Hirotaka)
絵:長 新太(ちょう しんた, Chō Shinta)
Level 1 絵本, 32 pages, 90 words (est.) ★★★★★ Hardcover

This was a thought-provoking book, for level 1; the narrator cries all the time (I mean, some days you just can’t win – who wouldn’t cry if a giant dog peed on them?) and noticed that adults don’t cry; will he stop crying when he’s an adult too? Cue the trippy-in-a-good-way art quickly becoming trippy-in-a-disturbing way.

なに みてる?
What Do You See?
作/絵:わたべ くみこ(Watabe Kumiko)
Level 1 絵本, 28 pages, 60 words (est.) ★★★☆☆ Hardcover

The world through the eyes of ants, birds and mothers. The afterword (which adds maybe 100 words?) is heartbreaking.