Mark Reibstein’s Wabi Sabi
illustrated by Ed Young
Book review by Monica Friedman
A Cat’s Philosophical Zen Journey
Wabi Sabi “finds beauty and harmony in what is simple, imperfect, natural, modest and mysterious,” but at the same time, it can be “hard to explain” as a little brown cat learns when she begins to wonder about the meaning of her name.
“It’s a kind of beauty,” a more experienced cat explains.
“So ordinary,” says the snooty dog.
“Am I beautiful or ordinary?” Wabi Sabi wonders, and, following the advice of a passing bird, she sets out for Mount Hiei to seek the counsel of a wise old monkey named Kosho.
The picture book itself sets the reader’s understanding on its side by literally turning the book's perspective; you have to turn it ninety degrees for a long, vertical portrait orientation. Each illustration takes up two full pages, and these pages come alive with texture and dimensionality through the use of exquisite collage techniques.
Real leaves, hair, and mats (“a collection or time-worn human-made as well as natural materials,” according to the illustrator’s note) are mixed with handmade paper and cut photographs to construct a vibrant world.
Aside from the illustrations and the main text, each spread contains two more visual-textual elements: a pair of haikus, one in English and one in Japanese (transliterated and translated in the back of the book). These poems, written in different fonts from the rest of the text, serve to add more layers to the multi-tiered story.
Wabi Sabi’s journey takes her through a busy city (the flattest illustration in the book), where she sees “big buildings, shiny glass, and sleek cars,” all that is not wabi sabi. However, she soon arrives at the foot of Mount Hiei, where Kosho the monkey finds her, immediately illustrating the concept she wishes to understand by offering her “a warm, heavy bowl” of tea.
The monkey lives its life though the concept of wabi sabi. “Listen. Watch. Feel,” he instructs her. He moves “slowly, but gracefully, as if he were dancing, and he handled his things as if they were gold, although they were wooden or clay.” Wabi Sabi discovers that the forest is filled with life, and that there are designs on everything, “on trees, in clouds and dirty ponds.” Glancing down at her reflection in the bowl of tea, the cat sees herself “plain and beautiful” and, at last, understands the meaning of her name.
Supplementary material at the end of the book includes “The History of Wabi Sabi” with a discussion of the history of tea ceremonies, a short section entitled, “Haiku and Haibun,” which talks about the famous poets Basho and Shiki, and a final spread that includes all fourteen Japanese haiku from the text, along with English pronunciation and translations.
In a world of sleek, shiny, and infinite digital input, Wabi Sabi is a story that draws the reader back to the perfect imperfections of reality. It teaches us to find beauty in that which is true, simple, and natural—an acceptance of the world as it is without comparison to manmade ideals. This is a story to inspire sweet dreams and even sweeter waking moments.
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