#WorldKidLit Challenge – Japan


Penguin Highway

By Tomihiko Morimi, tr. Andrew Cunningham

Yen Press (2019)

For readers aged 13 years and up

After starting my #WorldKidLitMonth challenge in Canada, my next stop was Japan.

This 300-page YA novel introduces us to Aoyama, a studious fourth grader who, in his own confident words, is extremely intelligent and never slacks off on his studies. He is fascinated by both outer space and the world around him, so when penguins suddenly appear in his town, he has to investigate.

However, penguins aren’t the only thing Aoyama and his best friend Uchida need to look into. There is a mysterious lady from the dentists who plays chess with Aoyama in the Seaside Café. Then they find The Sea when classmate and chess fiend Hamamoto takes them to a clearing in the mysterious forest. And finally there are the Jabberwocks, curious four-legged creatures that wreak their own kind of havoc. Tension builds as school bully Suzuki muscles in on the mysterious goings on, attracting the attention of international researchers when he shows off the Jabberwock he captures. The team of researchers, led by Hamamoto’s father who is a professor at the local university, calls a halt to the young trio’s work. Aoyama, however, gets a chance to shine when the Professor and his team suddenly disappear.

Whilst Penguin Highway easily falls into the science fiction genre, the world Morimi creates is also extremely realistic as two worlds collide. Details carefully set the scene in Japan with a cram school around the corner, vending machines in the street, girls in yukatas, and coffee jelly, udon, yakisoba and oyakodon offering a taste of Japan. The parallel world created by The Sea and the curious penguins also offers the characters a way to reflect on more existential matters. Aoyama, for example, wonders ‘Why was I here, why was she here,’ whilst Uchida eventually reveals the thoughts he’s been scribbling down in his notebook: ‘I’ve been researching what death really means.’

Readers looking for other popular YA themes won’t be disappointed. Aoyama is at that slightly awkward in-between stage, frequently thinking about breasts, which he says make him calm, whilst Uchida doesn’t quite understand the fascination. Ayoma’s eyes wander so much that the lady even scolds him at one point: ‘You can’t just stare at people’s boobs.’ Yet he doesn’t realise that maybe Hamamoto, who he sees turn red as they play chess, might like him. Nor does he understand why the love triangle involving Hamamoto and Suzuki is so uncomfortable and volatile.

Tensions with adults are less strained, and there are many tender moments between Aoyama and his father in particular. A father who takes him notebook shopping and out for drives to towns they’ve never visited. A father who shows him how to solve problems, and most importantly, one who helps him think as they drink forbidden cups of coffee: ‘Perhaps the true nature of all those problems is the same.’

I wouldn’t normally read a novel labelled science fiction, but I enjoyed the overlap with Japanese life in Penguin Highway, and would definitely recommend it as a great starting point. I’m also keen to see how the anime film adaptation and manga serialisation (recently translated into French) bring Morimi’s world to life.

Tomihiko Morimi (1979) is an award-winning writer from Kyoto. Several of his novels have been adapted into animated films, including Penguin Highway and The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl.

Andrew Cunningham is a translator whose credits include Kouhei Kadono’s Boogiepop series, Tomihiko Morimi’s Penguin Highway, The Ancient Magus’ Bride: The Golden Yarn prose anthology, and Dachima Inaka’s Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit, Multi-Target Attacks?

If you’re looking for more great kidlit and YA books in translation, be sure to visit the WorldKidLit blog. And don’t forget to join in the #WorldKidLitMonth challenge by sharing your #shelfies, #bookreviews, and #ArmChair travel stories too.

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