Asahi shimbun,April 27, 2011

Picture books bring smiles to young earthquake victims


Children listen intently as "Harapeko Aomushi" is read at the Ryori day-care center in disaster-stricken Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, on April 16. (Yasuhiro Sugimoto) As soon as the reading session is over, children rush to get picture books delivered by the 3.11 Picture Book Project in Iwate. (Yasuhiro Sugimoto) Editor's note: We will update our earthquake news as frequently as possible on AJW's Facebook page: Please check the latest developments in this disaster. From Toshio Jo, managing editor, International Division, The Asahi Shimbun.

OFUNATO, Iwate Prefecture--Childrens' book editor Chieko Suemori has been involved in efforts to deliver books to children in Lebanon and other war- and disaster-stricken countries as a member of the International Board on Books for Young People.

Now, she is using her expertise to head the 3.11 Picture Book Project in Iwate, to bring much-needed smiles to children in devastated areas from the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Suemori is re-reading "Frederick" by Leo Lionni, which her sons read when they were young. It centers on a field mouse, who, in the cold rocks, warms the hearts of his fellow mice with talks on sun rays and the colors of the field.

"Unless a light of hope or a dream is always in sight far way, one cannot start walking," Suemori said. "But picture books can provide the light."

On April 16, members of the project visited the municipal Ryori day-care center, situated atop a steep slope. More than a month after the March 11 quake and tsunami, fishing boats and heaps of debris still lay along the road to the center, in the Sanriku district in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture.

On March 11, all the children at the day-care center were evacuated after the first big tremor, and later, clouds of dust were seen from below, as a white wall of water surged from the port, with a loud roar.

The children at the day-care center were all safe, due to the center's location on high ground. But some children had their houses swept away by the tsunami and much debris remains in their town, and it is feared cancer-causing asbestos fiber and other such particles could become airborne when the wind blows. Having to stay indoors had added to the stress for both children and parents.

So, the idea to hold a storytelling event came from a father, who requested the visit from project organizers. Four hundred picture books were delivered to the children by the group.

After storytime was over, Chizu Akazawa, 58, Morioka Central Public Hall's deputy director and secretary-general of the project, told the children, "Take books you want to read." Children rushed to the corner where books were on display.

Four-year-old Tsubasa Hosoya, who was listening in the front row, picked up one of the books from the Thomas the Tank Engine series.

Tsubasa's family's house was not damaged on March 11, but his 37-year-old father's two fishing boats were swept away by the tsunami. Tsubasa has been frightened ever since even from a minor aftershock.

That night a bedtime story told by her mother--a daily routine before going to bed before March 11--was resumed. An excited Tsubasa would ask his mom to read the Thomas book again and again to him.


In one month since the project was launched, the Morioka Central Public Hall has received 110,000 books from across the country.


Some books were accompanied by letters from their owners. A joint letter from two brothers, a fifth-grader and a second-grader, read, "We used to read these books. We hope you will enjoy reading these books and feel encouraged."


About 30 volunteers work every day unpacking boxes, sorting them out by age groups and repacking 50 to 70 books in each cardboard box.


They balance each box with such standards as "Inai Inai Ba" (Peek-a-boo) by Miyoko Matsutani, "Guri to Gura" (Guri and Gura) by Rieko Nakagawa and Yuriko Yamawaki and Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" (Kaijutachi no Irutokoro).


Considering the recent tragedy, they avoid delivering sad stories, such as about a sunken town, or torn books or those with scribbling in them.


The project team has delivered 12,700 books by car to 27 day-care centers, evacuation centers and elementary schools in Miyako, Kamaishi and other places.


The team delivers books by a "picture book car," a refurbished minivehicle, to such areas as Rikuzentakata and Noda village where libraries were destroyed by the tsunami. The refurbishment costs for the bookmobile were covered from donations. The group plans to donate the vehicle and the remaining books later.


Other individuals and groups also are trying to deliver picture books to children in the disaster-stricken areas.


Writer Keiko Ochiai, 66, is promoting a campaign to send books, calling, "Let's give more hugs to children. Let's read more books to children." She is sending the books through Save the Children Japan, an international NGO.


Akira Sugiyama, a 57-year-old children's author based in Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture, works closely with Shigetoshi Yokota, 62, who heads the Kodomo to Ayumu Network (network to walk with children) in Sendai. Yokota delivers the picture books from Sugiyama to day-care centers and children's centers in the disaster-stricken areas.


A group based in Libra, the municipal library plaza in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, is now supporting the library construction effort in Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, where most of the residents have been evacuated to Kazo, Saitama Prefecture.


In response to a request to send books for adults as well, the group sent 1,300 books on April 15.


Seishin Daiichi Elementary School in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward sent more than 2,500 books collected by its PTA to an elementary school in the town of Okuma, home to the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The residents have been evacuated to Aizu-Wakamatsu in the same prefecture.


The book-sending project was made possible after Kaoru Kusano, a 50-year-old former school librarian in Okuma, called for donations of books.

Tokyo Shimbun, April 17, 2011 (excerpt)

The World of Picture Books Brings Back Children’s Smiles

Some 70,000 books have been donated to the “3.11 Picture Book Project in Iwate” project based in Morioka, Iwate prefecture.
On April 16, the Project held a reading hour for children at a day care center in Sanrikucho, one of the worst devastated towns on the coast of Iwate prefecture, attended by some 80 local children and family members. As volunteers read the “The Hungry Caterpillar” and other stories, the faces of the assembled children, some nestled in their mother’s laps, began to brighten. Former International Board on Books for Young People executive committee member Chieko Suemori observed at the time of the Sumatra Quake in 2004 how reading to children helped them overcome the stresses and disorientation of disaster. “We must do what we can,” she urges, “to help children heal the wounds they have suffered in this disaster.”

(photograph shows volunteer reading from one of the books donated to the Project as the children listen intently, Sanriku-cho, Ofunato, Iwate prefecture, April 16, 2011. Photograph by Sato Haruhiko)

Catholic Shimbun, April 9, 2011

Books for Children of the Disaster Area:
“Picture Book Project” Launched in Iwate

Chieko Suemori, a Catholic woman living in Iwate, has initiated the “3.11 Picture Book Project in Iwate” to deliver books to children affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Mrs. Suemori, who has been publishing children's books through her company, Suemori Books, moved to Iwate in May 2010. Through her experience on the Executive Committee of IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People), she learned that the fears and stresses suffered by children in wars and disasters are eased when they are sitting in someone’s lap and read to from picture books.
She began the Picture Book Project at the end of March, reaching out to small children affected by the Great Earthquake with books that can provide such comfort. Thanks to her wide circle of friends and colleagues and media coverage, the project received over 27,000 books in only ten days. The boxes of books also contained many letters from children. "The letters brought tears to my eyes," said Suemori, "as they wrote how they wanted do something themselves to help those who had suffered in the earthquake."
With the assistance of various volunteer groups and individuals, the books will be delivered to day care centers and elementary schools. On April 4th, Suemori visited the city of Miyako, one of the cities ravaged by the great tsunami. "The sight just leaves you speechless," she said. On this day, staff of the project delivered books to three sites including a day care center, and volunteers read to the children.
For the present, the project volunteers cannot keep up with the huge number of books shipments, so they have temporarily ceased their call for book donations. Instead, they now need funds in order to buy gasoline to deliver the books. Details are available on the official website: By phone, please call the 3.11 Picture Book Project in Iwate Office at the Morioka City Central Civic Center at 019-654-5366.
(Photo: A volunteer reading a picture book to children assembled at Akamae Elementary School in the city of Miyako.)

Iwate Nippo, April 1, 2011 (excerpts)
The eldest daughter of the late Yasutake Funakoshi, a famous sculptor from Iwate, Chieko Suemori spent her early years, aged three to eleven, in her father's hometown of Morioka, where she had been sent for safety during the war.
At the time of the March 11 earthquake, she learned that disaster in northeastern Japan is part of her family history as well. Her great-grandfather had been postmaster in the town known as Taro-cho (now the city of Miyako) at the time of the Sanriku Great Tsunami of 1896, and his younger brother's entire family was lost. In that sense, she commented that she feels a kind of familial link with the earthquake victims of the Iwate coast.
. . .
In March 2010, Suemori published her autobiography, Jinsei ni taisetsu na koto wa subete ehon kara osowatta (Picture Books Taught Me All the Important Things in Life; Gendai Kikakushitsu). In May, she moved to the city of Hachimantai in Iwate prefecture with her husband and son. 
. . .
Having had the experience of raising two sons on her own after her first husband passed away, Suemori also understands how important books are to rearing young children. “Food may meet more immediate needs, but picture books stay with children through their lives and watch over them when they are sad or distressed. “Books,” she says, echoing the message of the International Books for Young People, “can provide sustenance for living.”

Nikkei shimbun, March 28, 2011 (Japanese edition)

Calling for Donations of Books for Children
Picture book editor and cohorts send out nationwide call

As a means of bringing solace and support to the young victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, activities have begun in the Iwate prefecture city of Morioka, to gather picture books from around Japan. The leader of the project, picture book editor Suemori Chieko (70) says, " We know from historical experience that picture books help to calm and heal the spirits of children suffering from disaster and war in various parts of the world." She is calling for picture books to send to children in the disaster areas.

The "3.11 Picture Book Project in Iwate" issuing this call has obtained the cooperation of the Morioka City Central Civic Center, the books will be gathered, sorted, and arrangements made for their delivery to disaster shelters. Until now, the effort has relied on the personal connections of some of the members involved, but already a number of books have arrived.
When a major disaster like this one occurs, small children can suffer emotional trauma without really understanding the situation. Sensitive to the fears and anxieties of their parents or adults around them, they can come under considerable stress. Especially those living in the shelters, where many people are crowded together in close quarters, they are constantly being reminded to keep quiet and behave themselves out of consideration for others, making it a difficult environment for lively children.
At the time of the major earthquake in the Chuetsu region of Niigata prefecture in 2004, there were reports of children who developed various symptoms such as fever and vomiting, or who could not sleep through the night, awakening every hour or so out of fear of aftershocks.

For 40 years, Suemori has been an editor and writer of picture books and in 1988 established her publishing company, Suemori Books, based in Tokyo. Among its books are translations into English by Empress Michiko (The Animals and The Magic Pocket). As a member of the Executive Committee of IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People), Suemori was active in promoting picture books throughout the world. In May 2010, she moved from her long-time home in Tokyo to the city of Hachimantai, Iwate prefecture.

“I have heard stories about children who experienced the war in the Middle East,” recounts Suemori, “who could be calmed and healed by being held in a person’s lap and read to from picture books.” She spoke of her observation that “the victims of the East Japan disaster who have small children are desperate just to survive from one day to the next. It is precisely because of that environment that their children sorely need picture books.” She is seeking not only donations of picture books, but also help in sorting and delivering the books as well as volunteers to do readings for children in the shelters.

(Translations by volunteer members of the SCBWI Tokyo Translation mailing list).

  • icon March 24, 2011 311 Ehon Project Iwate established and started to work.