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A Store Full of Pictures

28 Nov

When visiting Taiwan, I was ready for Taipei 101, Taroko Gorge, and Sun Moon Lake. But there was something far superior hiding in an alley. Shimarisu Picture Books was discovered by accident. Folks, this is no ordinary book store. It specializes in and exclusively sells picture books from all cultures and in several languages. Sure children’s book stores exist, but after living in rural Japan I convinced myself such a place did not exist.  The mandarin-speaking staff were gracious enough to listen to my butchered English steering me to the local authors section so I can add a Taiwan book to my ‘Melting Shelf.’

Too Many Titles To Choose From

Beautifully Organized Store

If you’re in Taipei, stop by Shimarusa and  browse exotic pieces in Chinese, or get a taste of home with books in English (assuming that’s your native language). They’re open from 11:00am-9:00pm. While I found it by accident, you should take the blue line to Zhongxiao Dunhun station, use exit 8, head straight and make a right on the first street/alleyway with Shimarisu immediately appearing on your left. For more information visit their website (Chinese), call (02)2778-2211, or e-mail

The Purchase

Hawaii: Okazu at the Zoo

27 Aug

A day at the zoo isn’t complete until you pass through the gift shop. Usually, it’s the same ‘Made in China’ plush animals, stickers, toys, and coffee mugs. Though the Honolulu Zoo had something to strike a writer’s nerve. Children’s books! These weren’t your run-of-the-mill animal themed books. They were authentic Hawaiian creations.

With a handful to choose from, at a reasonable $12.95, I ended up taking home “Okazu at the Zoo,” written by Laurie Ide and illustrated by Daniel Kanekuni, both native Hawaiians. Published in 2006 by Mutual Publishing, the in-book summary reads: “Karley and Kamren share unique Hawaiian foods with the friendly animals at the zoo.” The deal maker was the author and illustrator autographs. I must admit, I’m a sucker for signatures.

“Okazu” is more of a overview of Hawaiian cuisine, than an education in its history, ingrediants, and preparation. Though a ‘Food Definitions’ page at the back of the book provides a foundation.

The story itself is lacking. Typically each page features the two children protagonists offering different animals food. By the end of the book I still hadn’t figured out how to define ‘Okazu.’ I’m assuming it’s an Hawaiian name for local food, though an urban dictionary tells me it’s Japanese for side dish and something a little more disturbing (see for yourself). Regardless, the array of edibles is intriguing. From the standard hot dog to the eccentric spam musubi, an interest in Hawaiian cooking will be sparked.

While the illustrations match the bright colorful nature of Hawaii, each page resembles a carnival caricature instead of displaying an innocent picture for children to get lost in. But the pictures do save the book from its random text.

Each page contains a short poem ranging from a forced rhyming couplet “Do you see the tiger by the tree? / Shall we give him a cone sushi?” to a bizarre  five-line stanza about a pink lion eating a hamburger. Children are guaranteed to giggle their way through the menagerie of animals and food. However, as a writer, this book feels rushed. It reads as a spell-checked first draft. If only some crucial editing took place, this could become a time honored read-aloud, and certainly a treasure for Honolulu.

Perhaps I’m being too technical here but why is the gorilla, which in nature is a vegetarian, dining on shoyu pork? Regardless, I still recommend “Okazu at the Zoo” as a wonderful souvenir from Hawaii. Especially for me as a writer, this book has been a useful learning tool. I felt as though my own ideas ran parallel to the comedic list of scenes, and related my own struggles to the uneven meter and lack of flow within the text.

“Okazu at the Zoo” may not be an award winner, but it deserves a space on your souvenir shelf!

The Melting Shelf: An Introduction

26 Aug

A souvenir, a physical reminder of a person, place, or event, can be a mere obligatory purchase or a smile enducing heart felt gift. For traveling Americans, the former consists of magnets, spoons, or obnoxious T-shirts all appropriately made in China. While for Asians, it’s something edible, preferabbly a local sweet or snack. Now I may be an American living in Asia, but when it comes to savoring my travels, I listen to the writer within. A bookstore may not appear as the ideal souvenir store, but for an aspiring children’s book writer, it’s cultural paradise.

One morning, while eradicating the orange juice hiding in my glass, my awakening eyes perused the parade of magnets. Colorful, tacky, and bizarre, yet they lacked personality. I was unable to re-place myself within the ancient Wats in Bangkok, or immerse myself in the sterile silence of the de-militirized zone in Korea. Sure I purchased these knick-knacks there, but I can’t recall doing so. Even worse, were the magnets of places I had never been. What business did I have owning a magnet or shot glass from someone else’s vacation? If anything, these items are more or less the traveler bragging about their trip which you didn’t take.

To respectfully connect myself or others to a vacation I leave it to photos. While  a custom made photo book could invite others into your memories, I personally would be lacking a commercialized physical memory. I needed a solution.

During the winter holidays of 2009, the answer roared at the Honolulu Zoo gift shop. A children’s book! Specficially a picture book, but what made it special was that it was undeniably Hawaiin. “Okazu at the Zoo,” was about Hawaiian food, written and illustrated by Hawaiians and published by a Hawaiian company.

I now possessed the perfect souvenir. Not only was it 100% Hawaiian (minus being printed in Korea), it added an international touch to my growing collection of picture books. A writer reads, and a reader collects: books.

Later in my trip, I realized that I didn’t need to venture into the gift shop to find souvenirs. For Barnes & Nobles had my back. Dozens, and if I had the patience to count, perhaps hundreds of books about and from the tropical island chain. Though, children’s picture books were the main event. There was quite a selection. While I only purchased a few for family and friends, I enjoyed reading them all.

Don’t be afraid to pickup a picture book for a friend. Even if they’re a sterile grump, everyone encounters youth at somepoint in their lives. You never know when holding onto that treasured picture book from a culture far far away will come in handy. You can even personalize it by writing a heartfelt message at the front of the book, much like you would a postcard. But a book won’t get lost in a pile of papers, and it certainly speaks more to the individual receiving the gift then the name ‘Marge’ stamped on a coffee mug.

Sure this strategy isn’t only limited to picture books, but it should be. Though I’m a writer, I find a 500 page novel to bea rude way to deliver a heavy hand of pressure to someone you’re supposed to respect. A picture books is lively, fun, and colorful. It requires little time committment, can look sexy on a mantle, but more importantly it’s universal. What if you visit China? Do you expect your cubicle residing friend to be able to decipher the parade of complex characters? With a picture book, they won’t have too. The pictures will tell the tale, and while some of the meaning will be lost, who cares! If anything, a picture book in a foreign language can be a wonderful ice breaker for a mixer filled with foreign guests, or even be the springboard towards learning another language.

You may be wondering, but how do I choose the right one? Truthfully, it doesn’t matter. You can search through thousands of shelves for the ‘Where the Wild Things Are” of India, or stumble upon a dusty self-published gem. The book only needs to be from the imagination and culture of the local people.

But the best part is this book doesn’t have to be well-written. For example, one Christmas, my parents gave me a locally published book about the snowy weather in Buffalo. While the illustrations and inside lingo spoke to me as a Buffalonian, the book was atrocious! If a writer only surrounds themselves with the best, they will end up feeling inferior. Instead, a sampling of terrible books build a wonderful foundation for improving his/her writing by realizing what not to do. I’m not telling you to spend money on bad books, unless of course there is some redeeming quality to them. In this case, a souvenir from a place you traveled to.

Finding souvenir books can be a prolonged adventure, an impromptu discovery, or a well-calculated endeavor. In Taiwan, I chanced on a picture book store with an entire wall exclusively featuring Taiwanese creations. In Australia, I struggled to find authentic Australian books in many a commercial bookstore, but ultimately found a healthy children’s section in a tiny shop. For my trip to China, I will have a list of bookstores, and potential titles on hand just in case the language barrier proves to be covered in barbed wire.

Consequently, I encourage all travelers to,  for yourself, a friend, or a writer, make the bookstore your gift shop. Please consider posting reviews of such books or experiences in the comment section or by providing a link to your own blog entry.

Happy global reading everyone!