Goldsaito, Katrina. The Sound of Silence. Illustrated by Julia Kuo. Little, Brown. ISBN 978-0-316-20337-1. Click here to purchase.
Walking through the noisy, busy streets of Tokyo, young Yoshio comes upon a koto player. “The notes were twangy and twinkling; they tickled Yoshio’s ears!” Talking to the older musician, Yoshio asks her, “Do you have a favorite sound?” Her reply surprises him. To her, the most beautiful sound is ma, the sound of silence.
Yoshio begins listening for ma. He can’t find it at school, not even in the bamboo grove at recess. On the way home, “He could hear the horns of buses and the whoosh of bullet trains and the beep-beep-beep of the traffic lights, but no silence.” At dinner there is the sound of chewing and chopsticks, and even in the stillness of his bath he hears small droplets falling off his nose: “Drip. Drip. Drip.”
The next morning, Yoshio arrives early to school and sits alone in his classroom, reading. “Suddenly, in the middle of a page, he heard it. No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo, no kotos being tuned. In that short moment, Yoshio couldn’t even hear the sound of his own breath. Everything felt still inside him.” Yoshio realizes ma had been there all along, “between the thumps of his boots when he ran; when the wind stopped for just a moment in the bamboo grove; at the end of his family’s meal, when everyone was happy and full; after the water finished draining from his bath; before the koto’s player music began—and hovering in the air, right after it ended. It was between and underneath every sound.”
There is something just right about the sensory-rich lyricism of this picture book about finding silence and stillness within. It reads aloud beautifully, full of playful language, alliteration, and onomatopoeia as it gradually builds toward a breathless climax of … quiet.
Yoshio’s quest is one that readers and listeners will follow effortlessly even as it invites them to consider the sounds and silences around and within them.
From scenes showing the busy, chaotic streets of the city to those showing spaces and places where Yoshio pauses to reflect and to listen, the illustrations of this story set in contemporary Tokyo are exquisite. The detailed pen and digitally colored scenes are both expansive and intimate, a perfect match for a story full of both bustle and stillness.
An Afterword gives additional information about the Japanese concept of ma and the seeds of this story in the friendship of the author’s father with Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, who, when her father asked, said his two favorite sounds were “the wind through bamboo and the sound of silence.”
Reviewed by Megan Schliesman