Takako is a new student, recently transferred to the narrator’s elementary school. She’s…well, she’s a bit odd.
She writes with a brush instead of a pencil, and she plays the biwa instead of the recorder.
She speaks oddly too, and she’s always hiding her face behind her fan.
We never find out where Takako really comes from – she’s just a new transfer student, who happens to dress like an eleventh-century court lady and speak in Classical Japanese. She’s brilliant at schoolwork and go, not so great at PE (her floor-length hair gets in the way) and a bit of a show-off. She’s assigned a seat next to our narrator, who gets to know her, accepts her strange way of expressing herself and helps her to find her precious fan when she loses it at school.
The other children in their class aren’t so accepting – in my favourite part of the book, two boys mock Takako by talking loudly in cod-Classical Japanese in her presence and trying to tread on her long kimono train. Enraged, she chases them down the school corridor, brandishing her fan – it’s such a vivid reminder of how much teasing matters when you’re a child, but also a really funny and plausible depiction of how small boys in the twenty-first century might tease a small girl from the eleventh century, if they got the chance.
The end of the book is a bit of a ‘misfit new student saves the day and turns out to be acceptable after all’-type letdown, but I guess that’s only to be expected in a picture book (it’s possible that my dislike of this kind of ending stems from repeated stints as the misfit new student who never managed to save the day). At least the manner in which Takako saves the day is fittingly quirky – the class gets caught in a rainstorm on a school trip, and Takako takes off some of her many, many layers of clothes and lends everyone in the class a layer to keep them dry. The last page shows Takako and the narrator playing go together – ‘these days I’m a good match for her,’ he says.
I love this book’s fresh and unusual take on the commonplace ‘be kind to new students and/or people who are different from you’ picture book message. The illustrations are beautiful – I particularly like the children’s facial expressions, and the colours of Takako’s clothes (yes I do have a thing for bright colours in picture books). I find Takako’s use of Classical Japanese in a modern classroom setting laugh-out-loud funny – I’ve thought about how it could possibly be translated, but I haven’t come up with much yet. Sadly, I think the book’s extremely culture-specific appeal is one of the things I love about it.
In general, it’s a book that pushes a lot of my buttons – I’m interested in Classical Japanese and the Heian period, I enjoy time-travel stories where all the focus is on people’s interactions with the time traveller, with little to no (preferably no) exploration of the time travel mechanism, and of course I love picture books. I also love spotting hidden references – those little touches in books or TV shows that make you feel like you’re in-the-know – and this book has a great one: historians have suggested that writer Murasaki Shikibu’s real name might have been Fujiwara Takako.