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Sky sweeper jacket

Sky Sweeper


illustrated by Holly Meade

Melanie Kroupa Books
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007




*Starred review, Kirkus
*Parents Choice Silver Award, 2007
*S&P Book Awards:
Best Spiritual Books of 2007

*Starred review, Library Media Connection
*Skipping Stones Honor Award:
Multicultural and International Books, 2008

*Lupine Picture Book Honor Award, 2007
*Capitol Choices Noteworthy Titles for Children and Teens, 2008

From the book jacket:

     Can a single flower say more than words?
     Young Takeboki needs a job, and the monks in the temple need a Flower Keeper--so Takeboki sets to work. It’s the Flower Keeper’s job to sweep up the springtime plum and cherry blossoms in the temple garden. As the seasons change, Takeboki continues to find pleasure in doing his job well--sweeping up flowers and leaves and snow--and then creating swirling worlds of his own in the gravel and sand of the temple garden.
     Friends and family ask him: Shouldn’t you get a better job? Wouldn’t you like to see more of the world? Takeboki can’t answer those questions. All he knows is that as the seasons shift, each one as beautiful as the last, he is happy.
     Luminescent collage illustrations created from delicate Japanese papers bring to life this thought-provoking parable that, with its Buddhist sensibility, has much to say about work, wisdom, and the possibility of discovering a world of unending delight in one small garden.

A little about the book:

       When I read about an old-time job in Japan, that of Flower Keeper, the words and image stayed with me, and a story began to unfold and evolve over the years. I was helped by my readers, especially Holly Meade, who had a vision of how the text would work as a picture book and how it could be simplified to focus on its most important messages about life, work, and happiness.
      It makes me happy when I look at Holly's beautiful artwork (her site: http://reachroadgallery.com/ )–– and it makes me happy to hear the different “lessons” people draw from the Flower Keeper's story. The story might touch off a classroom discussion, an exploration of philosophical questions such as: What is play? What is work? What makes a good life? And of course, What makes a person happy?
     When I read Sky Sweeper to Elisabeth Anderson’s class at Antilles School in St. Thomas, her fourth graders responded with a group poem about happiness:

WHAT MAKES ME HAPPY?

by Class 4A

 
What makes me happy?

Reading gives me a good feeling
Basketball – I like to get the ball in the hoop
My PS2 – it’s electronic!

What makes me happy?
Sailing – it’s my sport
Gliding across the water
Traveling around the world
Going sight-seeing
Swimming
   I like to be under water
   It’s nice and warm

What makes me happy?

Gymnastics - being on my hands
   instead of my feet
Golf – I’m good at it
   I like to swing my driver
My Xbox – ‘cause I can control
   the person in the game

What makes me happy?

Playing with my kitty
   I roll up a tin foil ball and she pounces on it
My parakeet--teaching it to sing
   Sometimes it chirps loudly and annoyingly
   but sometimes it chirps sweetly
Football – I like to score

What makes me happy?

Kick ball
   I like to kick the ball
Jumping in the pool
   feeling the freezing water
Sleeping - I can be unconscious
   I don’t know what’s going on
   If something bad happens,
   I won’t remember
When I’m awake -
    acting
    expressing a character

What makes me happy?

Holidays
You get to be with your family
You get to get to spend time with them
You love them
And they love you.



And then someone in the class asked,

“What makes us ALL happy?

And his classmates answered,

“Eating!”



     In the classroom, the Flower Keeper's story might also lead to an exploration of Japanese literary forms: haiku and haibun. Writing haiku is already a popular activity, but I’m hoping children will be encouraged to write without the seventeen syllable rule as an absolute. In fact, seventeen syllables create a poem that is often too long and wordy to be called a haiku. The Haiku Society of America adopted this definition:

1) An unrhymed Japanese poem recording
the essence of a moment keenly perceived,
in which Nature is linked to human nature.
It usually consists of seventeen onji [sound units].
2) A foreign adaptation of 1, usually written
in three lines totaling fewer than seventeen syllables.

     Most important of all is the “haiku spirit.” In her terrific teacher’s manual, The Haiku Habit Workshop, Jeanne Emrich writes: “The haiku way is just to say it--simply. Written in a very direct manner, haiku tell the who, what, where, and when of the moment as the author perceived it through his or her senses. The result of such a concrete description is that the reader feels as if he or she also is having the experience. And because commentary is kept to a minimum, the reader is free to come to his or her own conclusions about what the experience means....”
     Haibun is prose--a story, impression, incident, description--which includes haiku. Sky Sweeper concludes with a haiku by Moritake, one of the most famous haiku in Japanese literature. It evokes the garden setting for me, and the mysteries, delights, and surprises one encounters in a garden. If one wishes to seek out connections, Moritake’s haiku relates to the story through the image of the blossom. Blossom is a “seasonal word,” which many haiku contain to indicate time and place. It represents spring, a time of birth and rebirth, and a connection to the Flower Keeper’s job as well.
     The butterfly, a creature of fragile beauty, with a magically dramatic life cycle, also symbolizes life’s preciousness--and transience. Is it any wonder that, for some Japanese, butterflies represent the souls of the dead?
     I like to think that the Sky Sweeper lives on, if not in the butterfly, then in the spirit of the young gardener who follows in his footsteps and shares his knowledge and his happiness.
     I would also like to think, along with caring for the temple garden, that the Flower Keeper cultivated “the seeds of compassion," as Thich Nhat Hanh put it.
      When I was working on Sky Sweeper, my daughter introduced me to the writing of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk who has become one of the truly spiritual voices of our time. His teachings promote the attainment of peace for ourselves and for the world. For example, by not responding to anger with anger, we can create the possibility of turning our enemies into friends. Imagine if we lived in a world governed by the teaching of non-violence!
     In an article in Yoga Journal (Sept./Oct. 2003), Thich Nhat Hanh describes Buddha’s  transformation of the arrows of Mara, the Evil One, into flowers. Transforming negative emotions into positive ones, he writes, will transform ourselves and others: “You soon see that arrows shot at you come out of other people’s pain. You do not feel injured...; instead you have only compassion....” He acknowledges this may be difficult but teaches that, in this way, “We can all make flowers out of arrows.”
    To those who do not recognize the value of his work and feel he should  take a less “lowly” path in life, the Flower Keeper responds not with anger but with empathy and good humor, a fitting response for one who will ultimately smile with the inner peace and contentment of Buddha himself, the same Buddha who smiled in his flowery victory over Mara.

From the reviews:

“Infused with a Buddhist sensibility, written in clear, minimalist language, accompanied by rich, organic illustrations and culminating in a haiku by Moritake, this is an origiinal fable not to be missed.” Kirkus, starred review.

"This is a complex, challenging story. Children will need help connecting Gershator’s poetic, often Zen-influenced messages about Takeboki’s sense of purpose and personal reward; his death adds even more weight to the story. But Meade’s beautiful collage illustrations of the earthly garden and glorious afterlife greatly enhance the story’s accessibility and will help kids get closer to the text’s religious and philosophical themes." Booklist

"Only after the old man's death do the monks realize that his humble work has nourished their own serenity. Takeboki himself graduates to a perfect heaven (for him): now he sweeps the sky. As Gershator explains in a note, her story celebrates the rewards of meaningful work as well as the artistry of Japanese gardens. Meade's mixed-media illustrations (collage, paint, delicate line) intimately depict the dedication to a simple-seeming task that is, in truth, an art." Hornbook

“The illustrations provide a bit of foreshadowing, incorporating the figure of another smiling boy, the future Flower Keeper, in later scenes.... Nicely constructed for reading aloud, this quiet story has a satisfying progression that might prompt reflective discussion.” School Library Journal
 
"As Gershator's (Rata-Pata-Scata-Fata) resonant, lyrical tale opens, young Takeboki takes a job as a Flower Keeper for the temple monks. Though his task is to sweep up the fallen plum and cherry blossoms in their garden in spring, the conscientious, content worker continues sweeping through the other seasons--and many of them....Created from Japanese papers, Meade's (Hush!) richly textured, luminous collage illustrations are as simple and graceful as Gershator's narrative. Like Takeboki's, theirs is a job well done." Publishers Weekly

"It is a beautiful story in both text and illustration. An intriguing range of paper textures was employed in creating all the collages where one finds children playing and people working. Two kinds of Japanese/Buddhist gardens are represented in the mixed-media illustrations: the Hill-and-Pond style garden and the Dry Landscape garden. Due to the sophisticated theme, this will find its greatest audience among older children and young adults. It is a story that would generate a lot of discussion with middle and high school students on a career day." Children's Literature

"'Our age,' wrote Simone Weil just before her death in 1943, 'has as its own particular mission, or vocation, the creation of a civilization founded upon the spiritual nature of work.' Yet today children grow up with few models of individuals who love their jobs and try each day to do them to the best of their ability. That's why this inspiring beautifully illustrated book by Phillis Gershator is so welcome." Spiritualityandpractice.com

The serenity of a Japanese temple garden is captured in airy watercolor and collage in this tribute to the sustenance that is found in work and beauty.... Each beautifully composed page glows with clean color and the delicate prints of origami paper. Takeboki's gentle soul is central both to the pictures and the spare text. This is a satisfying and thought-provoking book to share. Highly recommended. Library Media Connection, starred review

Art by Holly Meade

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