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Celebrating the Insights of Children
Tara M. McGowan

As readers may know, May 5th is Kodomo no Hi, or Children’s Day, in Japan. On March 3rd of this year (Hinamatsuri, or “Doll’s Day”), I was invited to present kamishibai stories, relating to some of the major holidays and festivals in Japan for the third-grade classes at Shelter Rock Elementary School, in Manhasset, New York.

Kendall has captured me here, telling kamishibai stories to his class.


New Year’s (Oshogatsu) is by far the most important festival, with ramifications for the rest of the year, so I began by retracing our steps to January and discussing all the important foods that are meant to be eaten at New Year’s, each with its own symbolic significance—kuromame, or black beans, that will ensure whoever eats them will “work hard” (mame ni hataraku) in the coming year, and kobu (or konbu seaweed) that will ensure “happiness” (yorokobu) in the year to come. This provided the context for understanding the poor old couple’s dilemma in “Hats for Jizos” (Kasa jizo) because having no New Year’s food could mean the possibility of no good fortune in the coming year!

Here is Sophia’s rendition of all my props, and the stage.


Gwendolyn, on the other hand, has zoned in on the storyteller and curtain!

Following upon the heels of New Year’s, and actually a part of the month-long New Year’s celebrations in former days, is the festival of Setsubun (February 3), which marks the beginning of Spring. Here, I introduced oni, demon spirits, who were thought to bring disease and hardship. Throwing beans at adults (teachers or parents), wearing oni masks, and yelling “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Oni outside! Good fortune inside!), was believed to protect children from the hardships that oni could bring. When I discussed this festival, I had the students closely examine several oni posters I have made so that we could understand how to recognize an oni. For one thing, all oni have horns and most oni carry a heavy metal club. There is an expression in Japan, Oni ni wa kanabo—which means that an oni goes with his metal club, much like we might say jelly goes with peanut butter!

Hazen, Reed, and Stefano remembered the clubs, and also that onis wear tiger-skin skirts!

After explaining the highlights of this festival, I told the tale of “The Three Magic Charms,” where ironically, the Yamanba (a female oni) turns into a bean and is eaten up!


Jada has depicted here a “girl” oni.  And, Matthew shows the story inside a more elaborate stage!

For Hinamatsuri, or Doll’s Day (March 3), I showed images of the doll decorations and explained how parents would spend as much of their fortunes as they could spare on a set of wedding dolls in the hopes that their daughters would make a happy and prosperous marriage. For this festival, I told “Little One Inch” (Issunboshi), where the Princess and Issunboshi marry at the end, but only after he has bravely expelled the evil oni. It is, in fact, the oni, who brings the magic necessary to make Issunboshi grow to his proper size, so oni have the potential for some good, as well as bad.


Maria drew one of the oni posters and a scene from “The One Inch Boy”

And, finally, for Children’s Day, I brought in koinobori (wind-sock carps). In Japan, in this season, you will see colorful wind-sock carps floating in the breeze above many of the houses.  These symbols hold the hopes of parents that their children will grow strong and fearless like the carp.  I told a story that I illustrated of “How Dragons Came to Be.”

Here Steven has captured my illustration below from memory, with the Emperor and an extra oni! And Kayla depicts me about to pull the curtain with the word “Clap” for the sound of the hyoshigi clappers, with which we started each story!


Although this story is a legend from Vietnam, it is based on a belief, similar to one held in Japan, that the carp was transformed into a dragon.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Children’s Day without some rendition of “The Peach Boy” (Momotaro) and his successful siege of Onigashima (Oni Island). I showed the students images of samurai armor, and the kinds of helmets that children in Japan fold out of newspaper on this day to emulate the strength and discipline associated with the samurai warriors of old.

Here is Tommy’s rendition of a samurai knight, attacking a giant oni.

Whenever I celebrate these festivals through stories and songs, I am moved anew by the prayers and hopes of generations of parents and grandparents embedded in every aspect of these festivities that life will bring good fortune and prosperity to a new generation. While the excitement and interest the students showed on their faces and in their follow-up questions during these 50 minute presentations was a gratifying response in itself, there is nothing like having written and illustrated letters from the students themselves to help me to see the event through their eyes.

When I received a package of such responses from Mrs. Weinstein’s third grade class, I was so impressed by all the details of the performance they had retained in their memories and then revealed in their drawings that I immediately contacted her to see if I could publish them in this article. From the date on their letters, it is clear that they illustrated them on the same day as the performance, but when I consider that they were only with me for about 50 minutes on that day, I am so amazed by what they took away from it.


Notice the hyoshigi clappers in the girl’s hand in Eleni’s illustration, as well as the details of the oni poster on the left and the scene from “Little One Inch” in the stage on the right.

Andrew and Costa depicted the performance from different points-of-view.

And here, Harrison has carefully depicted the expressions on all the faces of the children in the audience!

I had explained that the curtain for kamishibai is often the same colors as the ones used in the grand kabuki or bunraku theater and that each color has an auspicious symbolic meaning (orange for plum, green for pine, and black for bamboo). Many of the students included these colors (or something very close!) in their depictions of the event.

Here are Lauren’s and Sebastian’s versions of the stage and curtain.

And here, we see Ella’s wonderful Oni with metal club on the poster next to the stage. On the curtain, she has written lightly in black, “How Dragons Came to Be.”

From their letters, it was clear that oni had captured their imaginations in particular, but I was also struck by the thoughtfulness of their choices of favorite stories. Many letters cited “Little One Inch” as a favorite story, and also, my own illustrations of the Vietnamese folktale, “How Dragons Came to Be.”  It seems significant that both of these tales are about the possibility, against all odds, of transformation and growth—Little One Inch into a handsome and brave young man and the carp into the first dragon.

Here are two scenes, one from “Little One Inch” (by Patric) and another of “The Peach Boy,” also brandishing his sword (by Owen).

It is on this note of bravery, transformation, and, most importantly, of hope that I cannot help turning to the horrific events, which happened in Japan only a few short weeks after this performance. The people of Japan have shown incredible bravery and resilience in the face of all they have lost, and we can only hope and pray that Children’s Day, 2011, will bring the possibility of transformation and hope to the many families displaced by the earthquake and tsunami.  Perhaps our biggest hope for the future is in the wisdom and thoughtful insights of the children, who, as I think these illustrations show, are well worth celebrating on May 5th and also throughout the year!

Thank you Caroline, Zahni, and all Mrs. Weinstein’s students, as well as all the Shelter Rock third-grade classes for inviting me!

Tara McGowan is currently doing her doctoral research in the Language and Literacy Division of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a visual artist and storyteller. To find out more about her programs, check her website at http://www.taramcgowan.com.)


Kamishibai for Kids ~ Cathedral Station ~ PO Box 629 ~ New York, NY 10025
Tel: 212-663-2471 ~ kamishi@kamishibai.com