Wabi Sabi

( 11 )


Wabi Sabi, a little cat in Kyoto, Japan, had never thought much about her name until friends visiting from another land asked her owner what it meant.

At last, the master
Says, "That's hard to explain." And
That is all she says.

This unsatisfying answer sets Wabi Sabi on a journey to uncover the meaning of her name, and on the way discovers ...

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Wabi Sabi, a little cat in Kyoto, Japan, had never thought much about her name until friends visiting from another land asked her owner what it meant.

At last, the master
Says, "That's hard to explain." And
That is all she says.

This unsatisfying answer sets Wabi Sabi on a journey to uncover the meaning of her name, and on the way discovers what wabi sabi is: a Japanese philosophy of seeing beauty in simplicity, the ordinary, and the imperfect.

Using spare text and haiku, Mark Reibstein weaves an extraordinary story about finding real beauty in unexpected places. Caldecott Medal-winning artist Ed Young complements the lyrical text with breathtaking collages. Together, they illustrate the unique world view that is wabi sabi.

A New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book for 2008!

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Editorial Reviews

Joanna Rudge Long
Wabi Sabi's quest and the splendid pictures will please younger children (though probably not as young as the publisher’s recommended range of 3 to 6). The rest of us will be better prepared to appreciate the subtle interconnections among dialogue, poetry and collages fashioned from "time-worn human-made as well as natural materials." Even this medium is a metaphor for the gentle philosophy explored here. The art is rich in leaf greens and glowing reds; in the textures of hair, straw, crazed paint or rough paper. Young captures moments of transcendent beauty—a frog visible through moon-struck water (crumpled, iridescent paper)—and his art incorporates traditional haiku references (a pale moon, symbol of autumn).
—The New York Times
Children's Literature - Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
Three texts go side by side in this stunningly designed and illustrated volume. In one tale Wabi Sabi, a cat living in Kyoto, learns that her name has a meaning that is "hard to explain." Wabi Sabi first asks her cat friend Snowball what it means. "It's a kind of beauty," she notes. Rascal the dog claims it is "too hard to explain to someone like you." A bird sends Wabi Sabi on a journey. The cat proceeds through the busy city to the woods. There she meets a monkey who tries to explain, telling her, "Listen. Watch. Feel." "Simple things are beautiful." Seeing herself in her bowl of tea, Wabi Sabi seems to begin to understand. On her way home, she stops by the Silver Palace, enjoying its simple beauty, composing three poems. At home she seems to comprehend the feeling and her name at last. Along with her story, appropriate haiku and haibun appear in English on the pages, as do others in Japanese characters, translated at the end. The collage illustrations, each distinctly unique on its double page, are bound to open vertically, perhaps relating to the way scroll paintings are hung, and what a variety of materials are employed! Some are purloined from nature; others, where a specific color or texture is called for to create the desired effect, are manufactured. Seeking out and discovering the inventive relationships between the images and the subtle texts is a delight. Note that the portrait of Wabi Sabi staring at us with wide eyes on the paper jacket is very different from the cover beneath, and do not pass by the end pages. There are notes on the history of the concept of wabi sabi and on haiku and haibun, in addition to the translation of those Japanese poems in the text. This bookis a tour de force, with meanings to be discovered on many levels. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
School Library Journal


This ambitious picture book tells the story of a cat living in Kyoto with her master. Curious to discover her name's meaning, Wabi Sabi travels across Japan, seeking advice and explanation from a variety of sources. In an introductory note, readers learn that the name comes from a concept centered on finding beauty through simplicity. As the feline discovers that she is ordinary yet wonderful, she comes to understand the meaning of her name. It is a complex idea, and the cat's journey is an effective way of presenting it to elementary school readers. The book reads from top to bottom, like a scroll, and contains a haiku and line of Japanese verse on each spread. Young's beautiful collages have an almost 3-D effect and perfectly complement the spiritual, lyrical text. While the story of Wabi Sabi's journey will hold some appeal for younger children, this is a book to be savored and contemplated and will be most appreciated by children old enough to grasp its subtle meaning. Translations are provided for the Japanese text as well as notes on haiku and the history of wabi sabi to place the whole lovely package in context.-Kara Schaff Dean, Walpole Public Library, MA

Kirkus Reviews

The Japanese concept of wabi sabi, or the art of finding "beauty and harmony in what is simple," is explored textually and visually in this story of a Japanese cat named Wabi Sabi who wonders what her name means when a visitor asks her mistress. "That's hard to explain," her mistress replies, initiating Wabi Sabi's quest to find a definition. Her feline pal Snowball tells Wabi Sabi her name refers to "a kind of beauty," while Rascal the dog hints it has something to do with the ordinary and simple. A confused Wabi Sabi journeys to the woods of Mount Hiei where the wise old monkey Kosho ceremoniously makes tea in an old wooden bowl to illustrate wabi sabi. Surrounded by nature, Wabi Sabi eventually understands that "simple things are beautiful" and returns home enlightened. Reibstein's plain yet poetic text, which deftly incorporates original and traditional Japanese haiku, works harmoniously with Young's deceptively simple, vertically oriented collages of natural and manmade materials to create their own wabi sabi. Simply beautiful. (notes, translations of Japanese haiku) (Picture book. 6-10)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316118255
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Publication date: 10/1/2008
  • Pages: 40
  • Sales rank: 204,357
  • Age range: 3 - 5 Years
  • Lexile: AD780L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 11.12 (w) x 11.36 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Reibstein is an English teacher and writer who has lived in New York, California, Hawaii, Japan, and Thailand. Now Mark and his daughter live near San Francisco with their good friend Arlo, who is also a cat. This is his first picture book.

Ed Young has illustrated for over 70 books and has been awarded the Caldecott Medal for Lon Po Po and the Caldecott Honors for Seven Blind Mice and The Emperor and the Kite. He lives in upstate New York with his daughters.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 11 )
Rating Distribution

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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 4, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I love this book! Not just for art.

    Looking at the artsy "illustrations" one might think that this book was written only to display the wonderful artwork of the author. But if it had no illustrations, I would still love this story. A Japanese cat looks for the meaning of her name, which is abstract and conceptual. No one seems to be able to explain its meaning, and as she searches for someone who can, she gains clues about it from her journey. Finally, as she returns home, the meaning of her name becomes clear. This story is told with haiku poetry in the margins. It suggests that sometimes words must be felt to be explained, and that many times less is more. Primary grade children can understand this story, which also lends itself to a lesson on Japanese culture and of course, haiku, for older children.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 31, 2014

    Love It!

    The art is beautiful, and the story delightful!

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  • Posted March 13, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A rare gem of a perfect children's book

    It is very rare to find a children's picture book that has all the elements that make it an instant classic. It has a beautiful story of a cat searching for the meaning of her name and learns (as well as the reader) the meaning of her place in the world at the same time. It has beautiful haiku poems that are not only beautiful, and descriptive of each place the cat visits on her journey, but each haiku brings a measure of peace at each stage of the journey to the reader as well. The mixed media illustrations, made with natural materials, bring a sense of presence to the reader and viewer, in that it is easy for the reader and viewers to put themselves in the picture and join the cat on her journey in search of her own meaning and place in her world. The author beautifully conveys the message of home and love as the place for a beloved pet to be in the big world it inhabits.
    This is one of the few books I purchased brand-new for my personal collection, and is on my "special" shelf. I hope it stays a classic and a favorite in my collection for many of my own family's future generations.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2010

    Beautiful illustrations! A charming story for both children and adults.

    This is a book I will read to many children and encourage them to make their own collages.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 11, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Wabi Sabi

    This story is an excellent story for an audience that is concerned about things much more insignificant than real beauty. People of all ages can benefit from reading this story because it teaches that outer beauty isnt always the most imporant thing. The development of the Japanese culture is also a very interesting and exciting factor. Poetry is also an aspect of this story which makes it appropriate for a wide audience as well as being potentially beneficial in a classroom!

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  • Posted September 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A gorgeous picture book for older kids and us

    This book is not just for kids. This gives a wonderful entry into an ancient and useful Japanese concept, wabi sabi, that I happen to cherish. It is a concept difficult to define, and therefore this gorgeous children's book is useful guide. A special treat are the Basho and Shiki haiku (in Japanese and English) at the back. Very classy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2009

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    Posted July 1, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2009

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