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Turning Japanese with Momotarō and Elly Nagaoka

August 13, 2015 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

What interests you most about Japan? How much do your students know about the country? Although we all have an image of Japan in our minds, and we all have some knowledge of Japanese culture, history, traditions and geography, there is a lot more to explore. One of the most memorable ways to begin our journey to Japan is by reading one of their most classic folk tales, the story of Momotarō, also known as Peach Boy. The illustrated edition will soon be available in the Helbling Young Readers Classics series, but we truly believe that this story will amaze more advanced and adult readers as well.

Learning about different cultures and traditions can be an engaging approach for many young learners and it will bring them closer to the idea that the English language is a great tool for entertainment, learning and research. Through reading stories (legends, folk tales, classics, contemporary) we can make different cultures more accessible, easier to understand and we can provide various perspectives on our own culture and history.

Double spread from Peach Boy illustrated by Elly Nagakoa. © Helbling Languages

Who is Peach Boy?

If you mention the name Peach Boy or Momotarō to Japanese people, all of them will immediately know who you are talking about. Momotarō was born out of a giant peach. This peach was floating down a river and an old woman found it. The woman and her husband opened the peach and found a baby boy inside it. Since the couple had no children, they were happy to accept this unexpected gift. When Momotarō grew up, he left his family home to fight the ogres who had been terrorizing the people and stealing their possessions.  On his journey to the ogres' island,  he made friends with a talking dog, a monkey and a pheasant, who all helped him in his quest. With the help of his new friends, Momotarō managed to beat the ogres and redistribute the riches to the people.

Peach Boy, the Helbling Young Reader

In the young reader you will read an adaptation of the story by Richard Northcott with the illustrations of Elly Nagaoka. The illustrations and the story create a unique atmosphere in their interplay, helping you travel to a faraway island in time and space. Let the colours and the lines speak for themselves, and just study the images first. Before your read the story, we suggest you go through the Play Station activities, and then retell the story several times. The Play Station activities and project after the story provide more language practice and fun games.

Interview with Elly Nagaoka

We chatted with Elly Nagaoka, the illustrator of the reader to find out more about her life and work.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): Hi Elly, could you tell us about your background?

I grew up in Japan, going to an American school in Tokyo. After high school I went to the US to study painting and printmaking. I came to Rome during my third year of art school and after graduating (in the early 90s), I came back to Rome where I've been living and working as a visual artist since.

HRB: What was it like to illustrate one of the most famous Japanese tales?

It was really challenging because the story is the most famous Japanese fable. Once I started working on it, I realized that I couldn't recall any specific images of Momotaro and that my memory of this story is an oral one; and I asked myself if that's because I've been exposed to so many versions of it, not only as illustrated books but also through different ideas and products. Anyway, I really felt overwhelmed and at a loss at the beginning.

HRB: How do you feel about the story of Peach Boy?

The story of the Peach Boy is so deeply embedded in the Japanese culture it's difficult to say if I really like the story. I like his fantastic animal allies who he befriended by giving them  the mythical kibi-dango and the fact that he was born from a peach, but maybe I feel attached to this story is because I've heard it so many times. I also find it interesting that after WWII, it was censored from public elementary school text books as it was considered to be too “nationalistic”.

HRB: This book is primarily designed for young learners for English. Did it make a difference in the way you think about the story?

Not as a story but I was sorry to see the word “kibi-dango” translated into “cake”. I understand the necessity for young English learners, but Momotaro and Kibi-dango are inseparable in the Japanese psyche.

HRB: What was the most important thing for you in this project?

The choice to use a Japanese wood-block print style was an important element along with the accuracy of the costumes and objects because it is a story from a very specific culture.

HRB: We often recommend that teachers and readers use these books as picture books, recreating the text themselves at their own level. Do you think it can work with this book?

Hmmm… an interesting question and an interesting exercise. I did not have that idea in mind when I drew the illustrations. Not being a teacher, I don't know if it can work but I'd be very interested in seeing the results.

HRB: Can you recommend any other stories and picture books you really enjoyed reading?

My mother gave me many picture books. Richard Scary's “Best Word Book Ever” was important for my English, but I really liked his funny and cheerful illustrations. I also really enjoyed books by Virgina Lee Burton and in particular, “The Little House”, “Choo Choo” and “Life Story”.

But I would like to mention two Japanese books which are really dear to me for different reasons.

The first one is “Suho's White Horse” (lit translation)スーホの白い馬, and is based on a Mongolian folklore, rewritten by Yuzo Ootsuka and illustrated by Suekichi Akaba. The story is a very moving but sad one about a poor shepherd boy and his friendship with a white horse and the injustice they face. It is illustrated beautifully; bold, simple and very poetical. Thinking about the story still makes me cry.

The other book is he Mochimochi Tree” (lit. translation) モチモチの木 by a well-known duo: written by Ryusuke Saito and illustrated by Jiro Takidaira. It's a quirky story about a boy who saves his grandfather. The illustrations in this book are Japanese woodblock prints and cutout pictures and they are stunning in their beauty and force. I can still remember being scared while reading the book, but I continued anyway because the images were so gripping.

Unfortunately neither of the books are translated.

HRB: Thank you for the interview, Elly.

Explore Japan and learn about Japanese culture

We have collected some of the best resources for you if you are interested in more.

Japanese ideas you can use in your classroom

Japanese art

Japanese folk tales

Japan, the country and its culture

Lesson Plans on Japan

And here are some of our favourite films set in Japan

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