What is Wabi Sabi?


Photo of author Mark ReibsteinYour book has amazing two page vertical illustrations, so Wabi Sabi is found in the library in the children's picture book collection. Who was your intended audience? What age group would you, as a teacher and parent, suggest as readers/listeners?

I conceived of Wabi Sabi as a picture book, because I wanted an artist to realize the concept materially, but not necessarily only as a children's book. That is, I did want it to work for children -- that was part of the challenge, as I saw it, of expressing something beautiful with simplicity--a kind of elegance that was ultimately emotionally accessible (as opposed to intellectually), because that's how I responded to Wabi Sabi myself. But I also wanted it to be for adults--perhaps as a coffee table, art book--or as speaking to the adult reader just as evocatively as the to child to whom the book is being read. I know Ed Young had the same concept. It was hard, however, to convince the publishers to market it that way--there really isn't much in the way of marketing for a picture book for all ages (though we did get an ad in the New Yorker, after it had won awards and sold out, pre-Christmas '08).

As the author, what was your reaction to Ed Young's art?

It's everything, I think, a writer could want--he took the concept and ran with it, discovering new dimensions, and far surpassing what I could have done. Interestingly, it was another book of his, Cat and Rat: The Legend of the Chinese Zodiac, which strongly resembled a draft copy an art student in Kyoto had made for me, which was the reason I approached him with Wabi Sabi--but what he did in the end was quite different. The Kyoto student's draft was very beautiful--perhaps more authentically Japanese, and exactly my vision--but not as marketable or as unexpected, in some ways, as Ed Young's version. Ed expressed himself, which was a more effective compliment (because he's a genius), in the end, than just the realization of what I would have done, had I the technical skills to do anything close. I think picture books, at their best, can be that kind of dialogue, or whole-that's-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts, between a writer and an artist. The fact that most publishers like to keep writers and artists separate is, I think, a mistake.

To me, you've captured glimpses of beauty, simplicity and nature (Japanese aesthetics) for a brief moment. What would you hope your readers of Wabi Sabi appreciate?

You just said it. I love what I've read of various types of responses from readers on the web--an Amazon review that says her two year old wants to hear it every night (or touch Ed Young's pictures)--awesome! A mother who said that she now has discussions with her teenage daughter when they go out and see some things, about whether or not they are wabi sabi. Ultimately, I'd love to share that appreciation of beauty in the old, the natural, the subtle that I experienced deeply as a part of the culture, when I was living in Japan, which spoke to something in me about the way I had always understood beauty. I think American culture is fixated on beauty in narrow ways--body images tied to social constructs of perfection, gaudiness and shallowness tied to notions of wealth and marketed newness--wabi sabi is a more inward and spiritual sense of beauty, and I think the American appreciation of something like that would represent a kind of growth, or depth. Maybe a less than modest ambition for a "children's book" about modesty!

Do you have other children's books in process? What other writing are you doing currently?

My problem (maybe that lack of modesty, again), is that I have a billion ideas in process, if you can count all the fitful starts and notes and ideas always coming to me...other children's books, screenplays, novels, etc. I'm in a great writers group, but I have problems showing up with the same work twice (following through, in other words). I also am working on a doctorate in education, now, which, along with teaching, takes up most of my time. Ed Young has actually already illustrated what could be considered a companion to Wabi Sabi--written at the same time, and based on another Japanese idea--Yugen. But it is a much quieter and darker book and, despite Wabi Sabi's success, no one has picked it up (though I admit, I haven't really shown it to anyone since Alvina Ling, the editor for Wabi Sabi, passed on it a couple of years ago). There's another book I've completed (not Japanese), which I think could be beautifully realized by the right artist--Ed Young wasn't interested, so I may send it to some artists whose work I've checked out on the web.


Author Bio:

Karen Y. had fun researching this author, and further recommends two interviews with Mark Reibstein that she didn’t conduct: a Powell’s Books interview and a September 2012 blog post with similar questions.


Ed Young

Fascinating interview. Coincidentally, I am working on a blog post on Ed Young. Coming soon...

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