By Katrina Goldsaito, illustrated by Julia Kuo. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2016. 40 pages. $17.99/hardcover; $9.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 4–8.
A young Japanese boy on his way to school meets a traditional koto player who challenges him with the idea that the most beautiful sound is silence. There in the middle of Tokyo, silence is a rare commodity. On the hunt, Yoshio does a lot of specific listening to sounds: the whoosh of the train, the thwak of his boots, takeh-takeh-takeh of the bamboo grove in the wind. But ma, the sound of silence, is nowhere to be found, until he is lost in a book and hears it—there, between the turning of the pages. For a small moment, he “couldn’t even hear the sound of his own breath.”
Ma is described in the afterword as the “silence between sounds”—when a conductor lifts her baton, or just after the tea is poured. The composer Toru Takemitsu, who was discovered by Stravinsky, said ma was one of his favorite sounds. The author’s father grew up next door to Takemitsu, so when he was teaching his children to meditate, he asked them to listen to all the sounds around them, and time would float away.
The illustrations in the book are drawn in pen and ink, then colored in digitally. Kuo has a decidedly timeless style, with a retro palette. Her secret placement of Japanese authors, illustrators, and favorite stores, like Muji, in the background makes reading the illustrations similar to the hunt for silence. Surprises are hiding there, between the subject of the story.
This is an obvious book to use in First-day school as an introduction to the kind of meditation that the author grew up doing with her father. But it would be equally rich for adults to share, because the search for ma is quintessential to our process of centering down. When we settle into worship, it is a symphony of silence that awaits us.