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Multicultural Literature for Youth

Asian Pac. Am. Lit #1

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Say, Allen. 1991. Tree of Cranes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN: 0-395-52024-X.


This largely autobiographical book is part of a trilogy. Say points out that “May in Tea with Milk is the same woman as Mama in Tree of Cranes and also the daughter in Grandfather’s Journey” ( In Tree of Cranes, the young Japanese narrator has disobeyed his mother by playing in the neighbor’s pond “filled with carp of bright colors” on a cold, wintry day (4). Once home, Mama makes the boy take a hot bath and go to bed, but she is busy folding cranes and very distant.  The boy finds it painful that Mama does not even come to tell him a story. Later, the boy learns that Mama has been preparing to celebrate Christmas, a holiday totally foreign to the boy but familiar to the mother who grew up in the U.S. The mother decorates a small tree with cranes and candles, and together the two experience the beauty and meaning of the holiday. The next morning, the boy finds a samurai kite in his room, a gift he will be able to enjoy another season.


The beautiful paintings feature close and distant perspectives of the boy and/or his mother. Each uncluttered painting makes a strong impression, and the paintings complement and extend the story. The illustrations provide rich details about architecture, clothing, and lifestyle. The people have round shapes that draw the viewer's eye, while the backgrounds feature mostly geometric designs or large spaces of color.  One reviewer writes, “Say’s exquisitely designed illustrations are as elegant as those for The Boy of the Three-Year-Nap…Geometric forms in the austere Japanese architecture provide a serene background for softer lines defining the appealing little boy and the pensive mother” (Kirkus Reviews, 1991).


The story contains sweetness and sadness. Readers are sorry to see the distance between the mother and boy. However, on page 24, the characters seem to have bridged this distance in an attractive painting of the boy sitting on Mama’s lap while they stare at the decorated tree. Yet, on the other pages, even when the boy and the mother are in the same room, they stand or sit apart and the mother seems somewhat remote. A Kirkus reviewer writes, “As in Say’s other books, there is an uncompromising chill here from parent to child…Beautiful, honest, but disturbing” (Kirkus Reviews, 1991).  The words “uncompromising chill” and “disturbing” seem extreme, but there definitely is some “space” between mother and child.


Say shares many cultural markers, especially in the illustrations.  Readers see skin color, facial features, hair color and styles, dress, food, manners, bathing traditions, inside and outside architecture, origami, a garden, and a toy kite. Readers read about lifestyle, religion (in the western world), and a storytelling tradition. Say does not address language, Japanese religion, music, Japanese celebrations, or form of address. The boy and his mother both have thick, black hair, a beige skin-color mixed with a little yellow and red (on the cheeks), and Japanese facial features. Mama wears a kimono-style top, and the son wears the same style bathrobe. While the boy is lighting the tree, Mama sits with her knees under her on a soft green mat. The boy’s bath resembles a wooden hot tub. When the boy opens the door to his complex, readers see an inner courtyard that leads to the house door.


This gentle story bridges the two cultures well. Children ages 4-8 will enjoy reading it at Christmas or anytime.