It's amazing what you can find when you take two two-year-olds to the public library and let them loose in the children's section. The other day when we tried this experiment Crow Boy by Taro Yashima was one of the first books that one of my toddlers handed to me before dashing off to pull another volume off the shelf. I noticed it was a "high quality" find - the winner of a Caldecott Honor Book award in 1958. As I thumbed through the pages, in between eye-balling where my little people were off to next, I realized that this was a story I needed to read to my older daughter and for myself, so I promptly checked it out.
Mr. Yashima takes us back to his childhood in semi-rural Japan and introduces us to a young boy, "Chibi," who is different from the other children. Chibi is afraid of the teacher and the other children. He prefers to be alone, to look at and hold bugs. He passes his time by studying the ceiling or a patch of cloth on his neighbor's shirt. He sometimes looks at the world through crossed-eyes to avoid seeing things he doesn't want to see. It all sounds very ASD to me. The other children do not understand him, and call him mean names. They even call him Chibi because it means "tiny boy". In the sixth grade a new teacher, Mr. Isobe spends extra time getting to know Chibi and eventually Mr. Isobe finds a way to show the school community who Chibi really is. He encourages Chibi to enter the school talent show where he demonstrates his knowledge of bird song, in particular various crow calls. (My twins, by the way love these pages as I try various crow calls.) Mr. Isobe then also explains that Chibi lives in a distant village and that he has travelled by foot every day beginning at dawn to arrive at school, journeying back home to arrive at sunset, and he has maintained a perfect attendance record for six grades in spite of being misunderstood and mistreated by his peers and elders. Chibi gains new respect from the school community and his nickname is changed to Crow Boy, which he seems to like.
The story itself is inspiring and potentially instructional to children and adults of the value in every human life, and the strength of the human spirit. The illustrations (drawn by Mr. Yashima and the reason it was considered for a Caldecott award in 1956) are lovely. To me it seems that Mr. Yashima was trying to show the pictures as if we are looking through Chibi's eyes. The only thing I do not like about the book is that it specifically states the cruel names that were directed at Chibi by the other children. When reading to my daughter it was easy enough to gloss over this by just saying "the children called Chibi mean names" because she doesn't read yet. It's important to me not to plant any such derogatory terms in her vocabulary as we try to encourage the practice of using kind words at all times. She will eventually learn these on her own, but I don't want to be the one who teaches them to her in any format. For a child who can already read seeing these names might be disturbing to parents of like mind.
I believe Mr. Yashima was far ahead of his time in encouraging people to take the time to understand those around us who are different.