Friday, December 02, 2016

Meet Sunny Seki

Sunny Seki is the award-winning author and illustrator of The Last Kappa of Old Japan and The Tale of the Lucky Cat. His Yoko-chan and the Daruma Doll has been reviewed here at ST.

Here is an insightful Q&A with the author- illustrator:
ST- Do tell us about your journey as an author and an illustrator.

SS- I grew up in the chaos of post-WWII Japan, when everything was limited: food, clothes, and even picture books. It was during this impoverished time that I was given a birthday gift that would influence me for the rest of my life - my very first picture book, and it was my treasure.

From the time I was very small I also loved painting, but was not able to own a crayon set with lots of colors. Instead, I had to learn how to mix the few colors that I had. Nevertheless, with such minimal materials I was able to participate in my second grade drawing contest, and was so proud when I won first place. My dream prize was a big box of crayons, full of various colors.

As I grew older, the desire to become a painter became stronger and stronger. However, my father believed that very few painters could survive as professionals, and that therefore I should keep my drawing as a hobby. When it was time for college, he said that he would not pay if I majored in drawing, so I studied photography instead. In retrospect, I appreciate his advice, because after I came to the United States I was able to operate a successful photo studio.

More than thirty years flew by, and the studio allowed me to support my growing family. Still, I could not resist the urge to polish my illustration skills, so I invested in night classes at the Pasadena Art Center College of Design. Throughout these years I went to art exhibits, and always took my children with me.

Before I knew it, the digital era was taking over the photographic industry. I saw that anyone could copy my work for free, and that to continue operating I would have to buy new equipment. So I started to think about other art forms that I could pursue. I had devoted all my time to photography, so I figured it was time to try something new.

Throughout the years I had been reading books to my nine children. This evolved into creating my own stories for them, incorporating friends and relatives as the main characters! I would illustrate these stories, copy then onto transparency film, and project them for family story nights. Our children loved them. One day, my wife suggested that I use this creativity to write children’s stories. It was then that I decided to combine my story telling with my illustration talent to create children’s picture books.

My first step was to gain industry knowledge by joining SCBWI. Here I learned much about creating books and getting published.  My early stories ranged from talking dogs to blonde teenage witches; however, these were not published.  With all the competition, I discovered that I should focus on my strong point, which is my rich Japanese heritage. So I asked myself, "If Americans like teddy bears, what do Japanese like?". Then one day my son asked me about the Lucky Cat statue, and this inspired my first book, The Tale of the Lucky Cat, which was published in 2007.  Since then I have released three more children’s books based on Japanese folktales.

ST- Who are your favorite picture book writers and which books would you say are must-reads?

SS- Of course my favorite is Sunny Seki!  I don’t have a favorite. However, there are certain illustrators that I really like, and I recommend their books. Of course I recommend Disney, but next is Norman Rockwell; he has captured the right moments, people, backgrounds, and props. I also like the style of Tomie de Paola (The Clown of God, etc.) for his warm style. I like the simple but perfect technique of Hilary Knight (Eloise, etc.). Other illustrators that I like are Richard Scarry, Leo Lionni, John Worsley, and Mauri Kunnas (Santa Claus). Finally, I like the very unique illustration style of Astrid Lindgren and Ilon Willand.

From Japan I love Hokusai and Hiroshige, and both have influenced my illustration style.

ST- Is Yuko based on a real story or fictional? If  the latter, why did you envision her as a blind girl? Why not any other disability? Or why not no disability at all?

SS- All my stories are based on both historical facts and also ideas traditionally accepted in Japan.  However, I have to point out that all folktales are originally somehow created. And if we conduct extensive research about so-called original stories, we will always find missing elements, unreliable information, and also many detailed variations.  In this spirit I usually add or subtract some elements to enforce my story and its message.  I am not a repeater ... but I am positively a creator! By no means is it my goal to create a documentary.

According to accounts of the origin of the Takasaki Daruma doll, there was a monk named Togaku, and in 1783 he was living at the Daruma Temple. When Mt. Asama erupted and caused so much damage,  this monk recommended that Daruma dolls be created and sold. While no documentation exists stating that the monk had helpers in this project, it is reasonable to assume that he did. Furthermore, if the helper happened to be female, there would have been no written record from that era, since females were not recognized as leaders or innovators.

This story made me became skeptical, as it did not seem realistic that a monk would single-handedly invent this doll. I definitely believe that there may have been someone else involved behind the scenes.  I also had unanswered questions about why the dolls were blind.

Therefore, I wanted to create a story that combined an historically-documented event with ideas traditionally accepted in Japan. It took me a while to formulate my ideas, and I felt like I was digging a tunnel to find someone buried alive! In the end I finally ran into Yuko-chan, who became my imaginary helper.

 Since old times, Japan had blind women called goze, and they were trained to play musical instruments professionally.  Therefore, I combined the two elements of helper and goze to create Yuko-chan. I don’t call this fabrication,  but rather a reasonable possibility.With a character like Yuko-chan, the story becomes more sensible to readers today.

 My goal is to give birth to NEW folktales of Japan. I do not think that Japanese folktales should end with only the Inch Boy or Bamboo Princess!

ST- What research did you do for your depiction of Yuko-chan?

SS-  I was born in Japan, so I already had basic knowledge about Daruma dolls. Many people do not know that, although Daruma is known through China and Japan, he was actually a monk from India! He is not well-known in the West, so I wanted to introduce him. All of my books contain Cultural Notes, and information about Daruma is explained in this section at the back of the book. However, to conduct extensive research, I went to Japan and visited the famous Daruma temple, museums, and gift shops, and collected much literature and Daruma doll-related traditional toys.

During my research I found that there is one organization of blind people who have complained about the suggestion that drawing in the Daruma doll’s eyeballs would bring success. Through my story I wanted to resolve this issue.  My thoughts turned to my wife’s friend Christy, who is blind. One time we visited her house and I lost my key. As soon as she heard that I was looking for it, she calmly said, “Oh, you left it on the kitchen counter.” She had remembered the sound when I had left it there, under my bag! I was so impressed with her keen sense of hearing and her positive attitude. So as I was mentally developing my story, I decided to tie together the lesson from Christy’s story with the connection of drawing eyes for motivation.

ST- A story with a disabled protagonist, needs to be handled in a sensitive manner, but also be realistic. How did you ensure that in your tale?

SS-The only time her peers were mean to Yuko-chan was when she first made the Daruma doll, and they laughed at her creation, thinking it would not be popular because it was blind and without limbs. But they never called her names.

In writing the story, my wife and some of my children helped edit the text and we made efforts to assure that the book was sensitive to people with disabilities, and as inclusive as possible. We made it a point to highlight Yuko-chan’s many abilities and her enhanced senses despite her loss of sight. In fact, the inside cover of the book shows a Daruma child in a wheelchair.

The themes of the book are optimism, overcoming obstacles, and resilience; so it was very important to focus on Yuko-chan’s disability in a sensitive way, as many readers will relate to her struggle.

ST- The illustrations are beautiful. Is this your style or do you vary it as per the story?

SS- I’m glad you asked this question. As a photographer for over forty years, my function was to depict my subjects as they were. However, as an illustrator I wanted to show characters as I perceived them.

No longer confined to the accuracy of the lens, I was able to alter proportions to create my unique style. This took me about three years, with much trial and error. My style today is consistent throughout my books, and it has resulted from a variety of influences. Of course, great masterpieces have always amazed me. However, I have always been more fascinated by folk art from different regions. Even before technique, folk art has a distinct passion, and I love this.  I see this art form as primitive or unfinished, but I like the warmth that it emits. Also, I love wood block prints, and this style has influenced my cover designs and end papers.

For my pages, I like to use the effect of rice paper to give a rich texture and more traditional look. Most importantly, my illustrations are meant to introduce Japan: the seasons, lifestyle, kimono designs, and hair styles. Therefore, before I complete any illustration, I research to assure that my details are accurate and precise.

As a final, fun touch, I have hidden certain characters and animals in the illustrations of all four of
my books, so it is fun for readers to search for them!

ST- What books/publishers would you recommend to young readers to learn more about Japanese folklore/contemporary fiction in English?

SS - For nearly seventy years Tuttle has been the only significant publisher that introduces all aspects of Japan to the whole world. For young readers they have published several excellent single stories and also anthologies of traditional Japanese folktales. Undoubtedly their two best folktales are Yuko-chan and the Daruma Doll and The Last Kappa of Old Japan, both written and illustrated by Sunny Seki!! It has been an honor to be part of the Tuttle family of books.

 THANK YOU Mr. Seki!

SUNNY SEKI is the author and illustrator of four bilingual picture books -- The Tale of the Lucky Cat, The Last Kappa of Old Japan, Yuko-chan and the Daruma Doll, and The Little Kokeshi Doll from Fukushima. 

He earned the 2007 NAPPA Award for The Tale of the Lucky Cat, a retelling of a Japanese folktale explaining the origin of the famous paw-waving cat. He has been featured in The Disney Channel
feature, “What a Life!”

In 2012, Yuko-chan and the Daruma Doll won the Creative Child Magazine Book of the Year Award, and also the Spirit of Paper Tigers Book Set Award. In 2016 it was chosen by Early Childhood Education Degrees as part of the 50 Best Books on Special Education for Children; in this same year the story was choreographed by Valley Dance Ensemble in Utah for their annual performance.

Sunny earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in photography in Japan and studied illustration at Pasadena Art Center College of Design. He operated a portrait studio in Southern California for over thirty years, but now he writes and illustrates stories full time. He also leads a Japanese poetry senryu group, and published two books  about the poetry and history of early Japanese immigrants. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, nine children, and cat. 

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