Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review - The Circus Comes to the Village

The Circus Comes to the Village
by Yutaka Kobayashi
Date: 2009
Publisher: Museyon
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Pages: 41
Format: e-book
Source: NetGalley

When fall arrives, the circus comes to Paghman village, one of the few pleasures for the villagers. Yamo and his friend Mirado are very excited. Yamo misses his brother, who has gone off to war. Mirado’s father is also away at war. At the circus, the boys browse the vendors, ride the swings and enjoy the shows. Mirado plays his father’s flute with the circus band and his music moves the people’s hearts. When the circus moves on the next day, Mirado leaves with it. As the villagers prepare for the severe winter ahead, Yamo thinks about his friend Mirado and wonders how he is doing. Finally, snow falls. The villagers are happy, since the snow leads to the next year’s harvest. Kobayashi's illustrations portray the beautiful village life that fall. Then, on the final page we are stunned to learn: "This winter, my village was destroyed by the war, and people escaped to other villages.” But the reader is ultimately left with hope, as the springtime announces the villagers' return.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I don't seem to have much luck with books translated from the Japanese. I don't know if it's a translation issue or a cultural thing or what. But I've found that many of them have disjointed narratives and some don't seem all that suitable for their target audience.

This is a story set in Afghanistan, although without the illustrations (and the fact that the setting is mentioned), you wouldn't necessarily know it. No effort was made to include any words from the local language, and this extends to the main character calling his mother "Mom". It's difficult to pinpoint what time this takes place in, too; I'm guessing it's present day (or, at the very least, within the last 50 years or so) given the presence of trucks.

There really isn't a lot of plot, other than the circus coming to town. Yamo and his friend Mirado (are those Afghan names? They almost sound Japanese to me...) are excited when they get to go. They ride the rickety wooden rides, look at ice cream (which is apparently only to be looked at, not eaten), and watch a show. Mirado plays his flute, gets applause, and decides to leave town with the circus (his grandma said it was okay). Snow comes to the village, and everyone is excited because it's good for the crops.

And then the book hits the reader with this weird gut-punch that seems to come out of nowhere. The village is destroyed by war that winter and the survivors abandon it. The village then sits empty as it waits for people to come back.

What the heck does that have to do with anything? If the synopsis didn't give all that away, it would've been a terrible shock. I went into this knowing that the village would be destroyed, but I thought maybe there would be some nuance or sign of hope. And I expected that it would tie in with Yamo's story somehow. But... no. The destruction of the village doesn't have anything to do with the circus or the plot of the book. It's almost like the author thought, "Well, I set this thing in Afghanistan. I guess I have to blow something up to show the horrors of war." But it doesn't work, and it just seems like a cheap trick to add some shock value. (It might've been too much for a picture book, but if Yamo had been killed or injured in the destruction of the village, it would've made more sense and tied the whole thing together. As it is, it seems like this book contains two disjointed narratives: one about the circus coming to town, and one about the war.)

So... I didn't like this one. The illustrations are nothing special, the writing doesn't evoke a sense of time and place, and the story is disjointed and relies on a shocking twist that barely relates to the rest of the plot. I've read better children's books set in Afghanistan. Try The Breadwinner: A Graphic Novel for a better look at a child's experience in the war-torn country.

Thank you to NetGalley and Museyon for providing a digital ARC.

Premise: 2/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 2/5
Illustrations: 2/5
Originality: 3/5

Enjoyment: 2/5

Overall: 2.17 out of 5

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