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Books: Typhoons, Whales, Jellyfish, and Other Monsters

In 1962, Kenichi Horie, a 23-year-old Japanese adventurer, sailed from Osaka to San Francisco and became the first person to sail solo across the Pacific Ocean. In Kodoku, Horie’s story is retold in a children’s book, written by William Emery and beautifully illustrated by Hanae Rivera.

In Kodoku, young Kenichi grows from a boy dreamer to a man, compelled to endure the hardships of the sea to achieve his goal. It is the journey that drives the young Kenichi. The journey begins with a battle with a typhoon, and eventually finds its rhythm with a sense of Kenichi accepting the ocean, its vastness, power, and beauty.

Hanae Rivera’s illustrations are vivid and muscular, reflecting Kenichi’s transformation from boy to a man. The images of the ocean are reminiscent of Hokusai wood block prints of waves, capturing the beauty and power of the sea. Through Rivera’s art, the ocean emerges as the main character in this story, the one that offers a full range of emotion to Kenichi’s journey: fear, hope, sadness, grace, joy.

In reviewing this children’s book, I read Kodoku to my 3-year-old son, Milo. At first, I thought Kodoku might be too abstract and scary for a 3-year-old. The idea of the ocean as an unforgiving monster, vast and all-powerful, might be difficult to understand for a child with limited exposure to the sea. (Our trips to the sea coast mean sand castles and gentle waves, and the sharks in the aquarium live in big tanks.) But Milo was rapt with this book.  He asked me to read it again and again. The passage that captured his attention most was the following, after Kenichi survives the typhoon:

The ocean and the sky were bright and new and calm, but Kenichi could not see them.  He sat huddled in a shadow. He had been so scared, but there were no arms to hold him, no eyes to warm him, no voice but his own. He cried out: Kodoku—the cry of loneliness. The Kenichi breathes evenly. He mended the little things the typhoon had broken. A porthole.The sail. His courage.

“What’s courage?” Milo asked.

Hmmm. How does one explain courage to a 3-year-old?  Mommy does the best she can. “Courage is when you do the right thing, even when you’re afraid,” I said. “Kenichi was very scared after the big typhoon, but he kept sailing across the ocean. He didn’t give up.”

Milo considered this for a moment, then nodded tentatively. I tried to come up with examples of courage in his own young life: his first day of pre-school, going down a slide by himself, learning to jump into a pool. Tiny steps of courage in his young journey. 

Frankly, I don’t know if Milo understood the word “courage.” Certainly, very few of us will ever truly understand Kenichi Horie’s courage to sail across the Pacific. But to me, it’s the mark of a good story that inspires questions about a human virtue such as courage. The fact that this book managed to do so in my 3-year-old son is worthy of note.

In the end, Milo also loved the fact that Kenichi catches fish with his bare hands and makes friends with whales.  The jellyfish were pretty cool too.  And for the record, when Kenichi sails into San Francisco,  the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t gold, it’s orange.

Sabina Chen reads, writes, and chases after her toddler in New Hampshire.

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