What? A fiction title for grown-ups on #WorldKidLit Wednesday? Yes, Ms. Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami, translated from Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai, works as adult, young adult, AND middle grade reading.
Why? This slim import from the U.K.’s Pushkin Press, released Stateside by Penguin Random House, features a fourth-grade boy as main character and vocabulary accessible to upper elementary readers. Its voice works for them on up.
“Ms Ice Sandwich” is a name I made up; of course, I thought of it the minute I first saw her. Ms Ice Sandwich’s eyelids are always painted with a thick layer of a kind of electric blue, exactly the same colour as those hard ice lollies that have been sitting in our freezer since last summer. There’s one more awesome thing about her—if you watch when she looks down, there’s a sharp dark line above her eyes, as if when she closed her eyes, someone started to draw on two extra eyes with a felt-tip pen but stopped halfway. It’s the coolest thing. And then when she looks straight at me, she has these enormous eyes which are so big I feel like I get swallowed up in them.
Who? Ms. Ice Sandwich works at the sandwich counter in a supermarket. Her striking eyelids, the result of a botched cosmetic surgery, and her no-nonsense presence make her an obsession—and port in a storm—for a young, fatherless boy who is struggling to come of age.
When? Where? This book unfolds in present-day Japan and offers glimpses of elementary school, a three-generation home, and public spaces. The setting lets it touch topics such as gender expectations: a man at the market lambasts Ms. Ice Sandwich for her looks and manner, with near-impunity. The setting also sends up the power of quirky friendship: absent the warm family bonds we might expect in U.S. middle grade+ novels, the boy’s moments with a girl classmate watching an action movie, and presenting an art piece to Ms. Ice Sandwich, feed and buoy everyone involved. Readers too.
How? This novella could work in classrooms as a Japan-set slice of life, an exploration of plastic surgery, or an examination of bereaved families. (The narrator and his classmate have each had a parent pass away.) In public libraries, Ms. Ice Sandwich would display well with YA/Adult titles such as Convenience Store Woman by Sayoko Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori—each almost populating the other’s town with characters of other ages.
Mieko Kawakami, the author of Ms. Ice Sandwich, has written a sequel novella foregrounding the female character Tutti. Several translators’ renderings of a passage from Tutti’s story show how hard it is to render Kawakami’s young voices—and how masterfully Louise Heal Kawai handled Ms. Ice Sandwich.
It is to be hoped that the sequel, Strawberry Jam Without Strawberries, will come out soon in Ms. Kawai’s translation, for continuity of the voice and magic of Ms. Ice Sandwich.
Ms. Ice Sandwich
By Mieko Kawakami
Translated from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai
2018, Pushkin Press / Penguin Random House
- Reviews of Ms. Ice Sandwich at the Smithsonian Asia Pacific American Center’s BookDragon, World Literature Today, and Library Journal
- Excerpt from Ms. Ice Sandwich
- Why Mieko Kawakami is the One Japanese Writer You Should Be Reading
- One Passage, Nine Translations: Mieko Kawakami
Avery Fischer Udagawa’s translations from Japanese to English include J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani, “House of Trust” by Sachiko Kashiwaba in Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories, and “Festival Time” by Mogami Ippei in The Best Asian Short Stories 2018. She is the International and Japan Translator Coordinator for SCBWI.