A tranquil story of love

ERIKA-SAN

ERIKA-SAN
By Allen Say (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009, 32 pp., $17, hardcover)

I wouldn’t intentionally miss a book by Caldecott medalist Allen Say. “Erika-san” was published in 2009, and I did not hear about it until now. It’s a sweet, sentimental but understated book that shows Say’s talent for both storytelling and art.

As a child, Erika was captivated by a Japanese print of a cottage that hung on the wall of her grandmother’s home. Erika is part Japanese. Her love of the cottage in the Japanese print became the impetus for her to study the Japanese language beginning in middle school and continuing through college. Upon graduation she travels to Tokyo to begin a teaching assignment.

Taking an instant dislike to crowded, modern Tokyo, Erika calls the agency that had hired her. She asks for another placement.  Traveling by bullet train to a small city, she finds it quaint but noisy. Once again the agency offers her another placement, this time on a remote island.

This third location suits her, and she settles into her career. Aki, a fellow teacher, guides her in exploring the surrounding rice paddies, coastline, beaches, and mountains on the weekends. One weekend she sees a familiar house, the one she remembered from the print on her grandmother’s wall. Aki explains that it is a teahouse, not a private home. It can be rented for tea ceremonies.

Unknown to Aki, Erika begins taking lessons so that she can perform the tea ceremony. She invites him to tea. When he arrives he is surprised to see her in a kimono. She serves the tea, telling him about her class.

You can guess what happens next. They marry, settle down in a Japanese farmhouse resembling the teahouse, and live happily ever after. Of course.
The watercolor illustrations are clean and delicate. Erika’s curly brown hair as a child is so fluffy I want to run my fingers through it.

I love Say’s sense of humor in the picture of the college graduates. They are standing in a group, facing forward, wearing their caps and gowns, staring at Erika. She is wearing her mortarboard with jeans as she walks off with a huge backpack, diploma in hand, ready for adventure.

The picture of Erika’s young students (perhaps 5 years old) in their uniforms and straw hats gathered around her is so cute I want to pinch their cheeks.
If you enjoyed any of Allen Say’s previous books, you will be glad to meet Erika-san.

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