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Cotsen in the Classroom: The Kamishibai Trunk Program

By Tara McGowan

"Kamishibai Candies" (Dana Sheridan)

In 2008, Dana Sheridan, outreach coordinator at the Cotsen Children's library, contacted me to help her design a program about kamishibai based on the Cotsen Children's Library kamishibai collection. Cotsen Children's Library is housed in the Firestone Library at Princeton University in New Jersey, and, as their Website states:

The research collection of the Cotsen Children's Library is a major historical collection of rare illustrated children's books, manuscripts, original artwork, prints, and educational toys from the 15th century to the present day in over thirty languages. The collection has important holdings of materials in the English, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Latin, and Russian languages. (http://www.princeton.edu/cotsen)

Included is one of the largest collections of historical kamishibai cards outside Japan. Since the Cotsen collection can only be accessed by appointment, Dana has developed a series of "trunk" programs, which she personally takes into classrooms in the area. This is the description of the Cotsen in the Classroom programs taken from the Library Website:

Cotsen in the Classroom is our response to educators who have expressed a keen interest in the special collections at the Cotsen Children's Library. We have two goals: 1) We want to make Cotsen's collections come alive for children in a relevant, dynamic, and innovative manner; and 2) We want to make this program useful and easily accessible to educators.

Since 2008, the kamishibai trunk program has developed into one of Dana's most popular programs. I recently videotaped Dana in a classroom and also interviewed her to hear what insights she had gleaned from presenting kamishibai from a historical perspective to children in the US. (To see a videotape of the entire program, click on the photographs in the order they appear.)


Tara: To start with, I was curious about what got you interested in doing a kamishibai trunk program?

Dana: I was looking for a program for Cotsen in the Classroom. The Cotsen in the Classroom programs take materials into classrooms, and you need a very special set of rare items to build a curriculum. You need something that's going to translate well, that is visually interesting, that's well known that you can then develop, but you want it to be sort of unusual and interesting. I noticed when I looked at all the programming that most of the areas I was pulling from were Europe and America, and I really wanted to include a different country.

I had seen you performing kamishibai before, and so I had been exposed to it before with Kamishibai Kids. That was my initial exposure to kamishibai, and I thought it was marvelous! I thought it was so dynamic and colorful, and it's based on audience participation. It's very much an interactive experience and would be perfect for a classroom, especially grade one, which is what I was aiming for. I was looking for something for kids who aren't reading and writing with ease yet, but they are building up to it in school. And the other wonderful thing about kamishibai is that it was so low tech but so incredibly dynamic with the way you pull the cards and tell the stories that I thought it would be perfect, and the final piece was that I knew you, and I knew there was a possibility that you would be available to teach me how to do it correctly and to help me research it to make sure that I was really being accurate with it. That all added up together to me approaching you to see if it was okay to include this as one of Cotsen's programs, and it still remains one of my favorite programs to do.

Tara: Since all of your trunk programs deal with history in some aspect, what do you think is the relevance of doing this in America for first graders today?

Dana: Well, initially there wasn't as much of a historic element built into kamishibai. And then I realized that some very savvy teachers already were aware of it. There was one particular classroom where the librarian had been to a workshop you had done and had introduced it to the school and some of the teachers had picked up on it and Allen Say's really marvelous book, "Kamishibai Man." So I arrived in the classroom the first year I did it, and the kids knew a lot of the answers. They knew what it was and how it worked.

So I thought in order to make this program even more valuable, I'm going to build in some of the historic images and a little bit more of the history. I will keep the technique and the actual display of kamishibai and the piece where the kids make their own kamishibai card, but I think it would be even more powerful to build in some of the historic images. As I began looking at the images and researching it, I became fascinated by this art form, or at least what I consider an art form, but in Japan it was a technique used to sell candy. Amazing! I equate it with, if the ice-cream man here in America also performed a puppet show at every neighborhood he stopped in. That is sort of what kamishibai might seem like to Japanese. And it was just so fascinating and finding the images of kids and then imagining this sort of entertainment and how over the years, it has now developed into a cultural icon, it seems, and is now being used to tell some of the older tales, like "The Mouse's Wedding" and "Momotaro" and those kinds of stories.

I really loved how that evolution could be traced from 1930 until today, and that shorter time span also made it possible for me to take the history and present it to kids who are in first grade, who can handle a span of time like that, as opposed to the fourth grade program where we talk about the middle ages into the renaissance and beyond. That takes a little bit more base knowledge and leaping from here to there. So it was the time span, and how incredibly dynamic it is, how interesting the history is, and how kamishibai has changed from a form of entertainment used to sell candy into something that is actually maintaining the culture, some of the older cultures of Japan. And this part is sad and I bring it up in the program at the very end, but I also use it as an example of how an innovation like television eradicated street kamishibai, gait? kamishibai, and so it's also a lesson of something from history that has vanished. These historical images that I'm showing you; this form is gone. You can see other forms of kamishibai, but this one is gone, and for some kids that really sinks the history lesson in, as well.

Tara: Now that you have been in so many classrooms, how do you feel the students are responding to it and what do you think they are getting out of it?

Dana: I love performing the stories! We do two stories, and the first one is a short, funny story, "Ichi, ni no san-chan." I'm always amazed at how they laugh and giggle, and how in the beginning they are a little bit slower to call out because they're used to raising their hands in class to answer a question, but, by the time we get to the end of the second story, "The Mouse's Wedding," they are shouting and having a great time, and they are trying to guess the end, and it feels very dynamic and wonderful. So I love the storytelling aspect of it, and I think the kids do, as well.

They also like the equipment. They like the stage; that always produces a big "ahh!" and they also like the kakigoori machine, and they like to talk about that sort of thing, so the reaction I get from the kids is that they're a little hesitant at first but they're extremely enthusiastic and they know in the beginning that they are going to get a different kind of storytelling. And, as the cards are being pulled, you can see them getting more and more excited and then when I turn the program around and it's time for them to create a title card, they are thrilled, they're thrilled that they get to try something different and they always ask if they can build more on their story.

The thing that I also find they are most enthusiastic about is the clap. They'll really get into that. I love the clap, because it helps them to burn a little energy too, so I notice them being a little hesitant at first, but almost immediately falling into and getting really enthusiastic about this different type of storytelling that is very colorful for them.

"Ichi, ni no San-chan"

Tara: I know you do other kinds of story-time programs. When you're reading a picture book, say, to a group, how do you feel that is different?

Dana: When I'm reading a picture book I am locked into the text because I feel obligated since the print is right there on the page to be true to the author's words more or less. I also find that with my hands engaged I can't tell the story as much. I think that part of storytelling without holding an object is the gestures get built in. That is my habit. I don't know if kamishibai storytellers do that in Japan or if keeping your hands quiet is...I guess it's a preference...

Tara: Well, there are lots of different styles of performing kamishibai in Japan.

Dana: I remember seeing a historic image of a guy playing on a drum while he was talking (T: yeah, or a gong) so for me the gesturing adds something more to the story and being able to physically straighten yourself and face the audience as opposed to twisting a little bit and looking at a story in pictures and making sure you're turning the pages in time, so it's a lot more freeing and some improvisation is allowed with kamishibai because there is not a printed word that kids say, "Hey, you didn't say that word or I see that," so it's not distracting. It's printed on the back, which again allows you to face forward. I feel like there is more freedom to improvise, especially if the cards fall out or you knock something over, or if you miss a word or something like that.

Tara: Have you had teachers follow up on the program, or have they contacted you about things they have done?

Dana: I always give out two blank cards so that the teachers can make copies of them on the copy machine and hand them out to kids, and some teachers report that they will be continuing with sequential stories. The stages that the kids take home are always a huge hit, and I'm sure some of them go home for performances. But I don't really see the teachers until the following year, if they are lucky enough to have the program again because it gets booked so fast.

Some of them report that "we did finish our stories," or the art teacher spent a period of time making the curtain cards. Or, I'll see a child who remembers me and says, "I finished the story," but I haven't seen any on display in the schools but that's because I do not return to the schools very often.

Tara: And I know they send you thank you cards…

Dana: Oh yeah, I do have examples of thank you cards children have sent me. And one sent me a thank-you card that I really loved! It was the curtain card from our collection that I use with the company logo, KOK, that she had recreated exactly and on the inside there were hands clapping, and it said, "faster and faster," and it said, "thank you so much." Sometimes the thank- you cards I get will show me standing up there with the stage, or they depict the mouse's wedding, but I like the "faster and faster" one and the KOK logo because that showed an exact match up with the materials that we were presenting, and to me that's huge! That's a first grader remembering something from our rare book's collection exactly and feeling strongly enough about it to put it on a card and send it to me, so yes I do get follow-up like that, and the kids do remember me when I go back. Just the other day I was in a school, and they said, "You're the lady with the stage!" They might not remember "kamishibai" because they are in second grade and that's a pretty big word, but they remember what we did.

"The Mouse's Wedding"

Tara: What are your thoughts going forward with this program?

Dana: We will definitely continue it. It's very popular. It's very interesting to do, and it gets such a great reaction from teachers and students that I'm really proud to have it in the repertoire. And I think awareness of kamishibai is growing, at least in Princeton, but in the outside school districts, this is something brand new, and the teachers are really interested in seeing it. I'm really proud to bring something that is so culturally different for them to the kids and to the teachers themselves because everyone knows about Beatrix Potter and Hans Christian Andersen, and they have an idea of Colonial classrooms and what illuminated manuscripts look like, maybe not Spilsbury's dissected map, which is in our fifth grade program. But kamishibai is so different and so unique and colorful and dynamic. That's what I just keep coming back to. It's just, this is an incredible way of telling stories, and it's so innovative, that it is just a real pleasure to show people what I believe is an art form.

Tara: When you say innovative, that's interesting because it is from the 1930s and it did sort of die out with television so what do you mean by innovative?

Dana: I mean it's storytelling with a stage and the art of pulling the cards in dynamic ways, the techniques used to draw, the supplying of the voice and the narration along with the pictures, and the interaction with the audience. There is nothing else like that.

Tara: So innovative in the sense of being innovative now...

Dana: Innovative now, and it includes so many different pieces that make it dynamic and yet so low-tech. I'm not anti technology but I am certainly interested in how someone can take something and deliver it in such a wonderful way, and it always goes right! It's not bleeping or flashing, and you don't have to plug it in anywhere, and to me that is innovative because you are delivering so many different pieces--the art, the voice, the story, the interaction--and you're doing it in a way that doesn't require plugging in and doesn't require a lot of bells and whistles. There it is! So to me that is innovative. It's a very useful tool, that's inexpensive and the perfect technology, it always works because it doesn't take a lot to run it except for this beautiful interaction between the audience, the storyteller, the images, and the story. It works in such a beautiful way and so different from picture books, which most American children are used to. There's a really different feel to it and a group dynamic that isn't so common an experience in America, and so to me it is innovative too because it is a new idea for me, and maybe for people in Japan, it's not. It's something that has been around that they know about, but to me it is just amazing.

Tara: I think presenting it the way you do would be innovative in some places in Japan because that is not necessarily how it is performed in classrooms in Japan. Very often, teachers will hide behind the stage and read the backs of the cards, and it becomes more like a picture-book format. So a lot of Japanese people are probably not as aware of the history, or of the fact that kamishibai was originally an oral, street-performance art, as you are from doing these programs.

Dana: I'm really glad I got to know this art form, and I feel like I am just at the tip of the iceberg. I don't think it would be as good of a program if it hadn't been for you and your input. Delving into a culture and an art form that I'm not aware of and a language that I don't know, I really needed a guide. I don't think the program would have been so strong, and I don't think I would have moved forward with it, if I hadn't had a guide like you to lead me through it, so thank you.

Tara: Thank you! I really like that you say that it is "the tip of the iceberg" because I sometimes meet up with people in America who say, "Oh kamishibai, I know about that," but there is really so much to it that I feel I'm still learning new things after all these years, and even having been to Japan and having worked with people there. So I'm glad to hear you say that, and maybe we can put the word out there.

Dana: I wish I could have seen it in 1930 because I imagine that some of these storytellers were incredibly talented and I would have loved to have been there in person and to have experienced it as a kid-someone coming into the neighborhood and picking up on a cliffhanger, while you're chomping on your candy. I would have loved to have seen it, so I'm a bit remorseful that I didn't get to see one of those cool bikes with the box on the back and the stage and the drawers and the candy and the cards. That would have been really interesting! But the next best thing is to bring it alive for kids in this way, as best I can.

Tara: Thank you, Dana.

Here is the description of the Kamishibai trunk program on the Cotsen website:

Kamishibai (pronounced kah-mee-she-bye), or "paper theater," is a dynamic performance art that first delighted crowds on the streets of Japan in the 1930s. By the 1950s, colorful kamishibai stories were the most popular form of children's entertainment in the country! This program weaves Japanese history and culture into a live kamishibai performance, and finishes with students producing their own story cards to gain a unique perspective on storytelling in other parts of the world. Related NJ Core Curriculum Standards: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 6.2

For more information, check the Cotsen Children's Library Website

Tara McGowan is an artist, Japan scholar, and doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, doing research on kamishibai. Her book for teachers, entitled The Kamishibai Classroom: Engaging Multiple Literacies through the Art of "Paper Theater" was published in 2010 (Linworth Libraries Unlimited). Her website is http://www.taramcgowan.com.


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