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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #11 (March 15, 2005), page 15.
Intrigue and counter-intrigue for the little ones
The Boy of the Three-Year Nap
By Dianne Snyder
Illustrated by Allen Say
Houghton Mifflin, 1988
Hardcover, 32 pages, $15.95
By Josephine Bridges
On the banks of the river Nagara, where the long-necked cormorants fish at night, there once lived a poor widow and her son." While the widow works hard sewing silk kimonos, her head bobbing up and down "like the birds hunting for fish," her son Taro is "as lazy as a rich man’s cat." The Boy of the Three-Year Nap, a Caldecott Honor Book, is a comical story of family intrigue and counter-intrigue based on a Japanese folktale that author Dianne Snyder heard as a child in Japan.
When a wealthy rice merchant moves to town and builds a mansion for his wife and daughter, Taro devises a plan. Masquerading as "the ujigami, the patron god of the town," the young man tells the merchant that he must wed his daughter "at once to that fine lad who lives on your street."
The "fine lad," of course, is the one of whom it is said "that if no one woke him, Taro would sleep three years at a stretch." The merchant is in a panic. "Couldn’t we wait a year or two?" he asks the phony ujigami, who tells him that if he delays, his daughter will be turned into a clay pot. "See if she can find a husband then!"
Having the laziest son-in-law in town is clearly the lesser of two evils, and the merchant begins negotiations with Taro’s mother, who figures out immediately what her son is up to and appears to play along. She tells the merchant that even if the two young people marry, his daughter "could never live in this wretched house." When the merchant sends someone to do some minor home repair, the widow reminds him that the one-room house is still too small for his daughter, and he agrees to send carpenters to enlarge the structure. "After the merchant left, Taro chuckled. ‘Splendid. My plan is working!’" But what Taro’s mother asks the merchant for next is not what her son had in mind.
Allen Say’s illustrations are marvelous as always. While Taro’s blanket is patched, and his house has cracks in the walls, tears in the screens, and tiles missing from the roof, Say also uses beautiful kimono patterns and Japanese interior design to depict a kind of abstract poverty, rather than a slovenly hovel that would detract from the fun of the story.
The Boy of the Three-Year Nap is rich with opportunities for readers to guess what will happen next, and the moral of the story is conveyed with the lightest of touches. As for Taro, as we bid him goodbye, "If he is not the busiest man in town, neither is he the laziest."