Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Three-year-old Noriko's parents work fulltime, so her grandmother Hana takes care of her most days. Nori's a bit of a handful for the old woman, imaginative and prone to wandering off, but Hana does her level best to keep up with the little girl and to help her to navigate a world that Hana doesn't fully understand herself.
The year is 1986, and Noriko, better known as Nori, is three-going-on-four-years-old. Her parents work fulltime, which means that her maternal grandmother is in charge of the rambunctious child for most of the day. It's a story we've seen iterations of in the past and perhaps lived across different years and places, and that familiarity is something that author/artist Rumi Hara builds on to create a graphic novel that's at once recognizable and new, reality flavored with a dollop of magic realism.
The story takes place in a small, suburban town in Osaka, and Nori is a somewhat reluctant preschooler. Across the six chapters she has encounters with older children, agemates, and animals, with each chapter basically a vignette of some experience she has. Although there are recurring characters – most notably a group of fifth graders and her preschool friend Taichi – each story can also stand alone to a degree. This is largely accomplished by the fact that while all of Nori's experiences are unique to her, they're also ones that almost anyone can relate to, no matter where you grew up. The thrill of watching older kids as they do their mysterious Older Kid Stuff and the excitement of catching a bug or a fish are universal, and if some elements of the book are firmly rooted in an earlier time or a less urban environment, there's enough magic realism that it balances things out for people who grew up later or in a more urban setting.
I bring this up because Nori spends what may come off as an awful lot of time alone or wandering off, something that may sound alarm bells for some readers. For a suburban or rural environment in the 1980s, however, this is par for the course – although parents certainly still worried and preferred that their kids didn't just take off, there was a bit less fear, and in a small town setting, the reassurance that everyone would have their eyes open. This level of relative freedom is what allows Nori to immerse herself in the wonder of her world, and several instances show that others are, in fact, keeping an eye out, with the most touching being when grandmother Hana and Taichi's mother notice that Nori and Taichi are playing with some fifth graders in a ditch and overhear the kids being teased by wealthier fifth graders. Hana immediately runs off to get some watermelon for the group to make them feel better as well as to thank them for keeping an eye on the two younger children. It's a scene that not only solidifies the small town setting, but also tells us a lot about Hana as a person – she's kind of the ultimate grandma, caring for all children, not just her own granddaughter. This is borne out in the chapter immediately following, when Nori and Hana win a trip to Hawaii in a local shopping district raffle. (Nori was turning the crank, so everyone tells her that she won in another nice moment.) The two stay at a bed and breakfast run by a family who recently lost their grandmother, and the daughter, who looks about ten, is having a difficult time with it, especially since, like Nori, she was primarily raised by her grandmother until her passing. Hana goes out of her way to finish the yukata that the deceased grandmother was sewing when she died, once again stepping into the role of Universal Granny, which seems to be how Nori and the other children largely view her.
Although Nori is the ostensible main character of the volume, Hana does have more spoken lines, mostly because we follow Nori so closely. She's not one of those chatterbox children, generally observing things and acting like a little imp and only speaking when she has something distinct to say. This may be because of Hara's own childhood (the book appears to be semi-autobiographical or at least based on Hara's own memories with her grandmothers), but it also sets the two up as foils. In the Hawaii chapter, the longest in the book, Hana and some other old folks talk about their childhoods and young adulthood during World War Two, essentially disclosing how those years shaped their worldviews. Although Hana doesn't say much, we see through the pictures that she had to work in a factory as a schoolgirl and that her neighborhood was flattened by the bombings. The contrast between what she lived through and the safe world where Nori can wander freely and interact with almost anyone in town, including the local homeless man who may also have been shaped by his wartime experiences, is striking, even though there are really only two pages devoted to Hana's past.
Hara's art is cartoony and deceptively simple, which helps the slightly magical nature of the story to shine through. (It's more reminiscent of Lorena Alvarez's Nightlights in tone and feeling than anything.) The book is printed in black, white, and a selection of single colors, which change with each chapter, so the two “Nori and the Bats in the House” chapters which bookend the volume are in black, white, and rose, while the ditch chapter is in black, white, and turquoise, and so on. While the black, white, and brown of the Hawaii chapter isn't as pleasant as the others (although it is the one that brings up both WWII and the dead grandmother, so that may be on purpose), this largely works and makes things interesting, especially since each extra color helps to highlight the mood of the chapter it is used in.
Nori is a quiet, warm book about the magic of how small children see the world and the comforts of a loving grandma. It is nostalgic, but not in a sickly-sweet way – Nori definitely gets punished when she's bad, for example – and overall just a pleasant reading experience. No matter when you grew up, there's something familiar about Nori and her viewpoint, so if you're in the mood for cozy, this is the book to pick up.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Familiar and unique at the same time, nice use of magic realism elements to show how Nori sees the world.
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