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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
Secret of the Blue Glass (The)
by Tomiko Inui
Age Range: 9-11
Set in Tokyo, the story begins in 1913, when young Tatsuo Moriyami is entrusted with the task of looking after the Little People by his English teacher Miss MacLachlan who is returning to England. There is only one thing they need to survive – a nightly glass of milk, served in a sparkling blue goblet.
As the years go by both Tatsuo and the Little People, Fern and Balbo who are just four inches high, have families of their own and the responsibility of the milk in the blue glass goblet is passed down to Tatsuo’s children. The Little People with their two children, Robin and Iris, live on a bookshelf in a dusty library where they sleep in cigarette boxes. They craft shoes from old book jackets, spin silk from spider’s webs and mill flour from acorns. First, it is Tatsuo's son Tetsu who looks after them and then it is passed to his daughter Yuri.
When the Second World War comes to Japan it brings a dangerous new kind of patriotism. While Tatsuo is imprisoned for being a traitor, Tetsu must fight for his country and second son Shin, although too young to join the army, is fiercely nationalistic.
Yuri is evacuated to the countryside on her own, taking the Little People with her. As milk becomes scarce, and Yuri struggles to feed them battling rationing and her own illness, they face danger and begin to fear for their lives. What is to become of the Little People if the milk runs out?
The Secret of the Blue Glass was written in 1959 by award-winning Japanese author Tomiko Inui (1924-2002) and this is the first English translation, by Ginny Tapley Takemori, published by Pushkin Children’s Books. Whilst having a fairy-tale element – the Little People are reminiscent of The Borrowers there is also the sprightly little imp Amanejakki and a couple of talking pigeons. However, the fantasy element is set against the backdrop of the very real events of the Second World War.
There are few children's books about this period from a Japanese perspective. The Little People's story is cleverly woven with historical detail of the hardship experienced by the ordinary Japanese population, both in Tokyo and the countryside.
Underlying this is a subtle sub-text. The Little People are British and have been left in the care of a Japanese family. When war breaks out they are not only in danger from a lack of milk but also of their origins being discovered. In the last few pages of the book Yuri's mother tells her daughter about a time when Japan was not warped by a fanatical nationalism, of a kinder, wiser Japan from a bygone age, one that perhaps they can hope to return to.
An unusual and deeply moving book.