Rosemary Wells’s Yoko Writes Her Name, a contemporary fable about linguistic difference, shows what kindergarten might be like for an ELL (English Language Learner) kitten or child. Through this book a child might learn some good lessons about diversity, forgiveness, and acceptance. Little gray tabby Yoko speaks and reads out loud in English, but writes in Japanese, and that is how the whole story and conflict begins.
The first time the teacher asks everyone to write their names, Yoko writes hers in Japanese, and the teacher acknowledges “How beautifully Yoko writes in Japanese,” but two other kittens in kindergarten whisper, “Yoko can’t write. She is only scribbling!” “She won’t graduate from kindergarten!” Things get worse when the teacher invites Yoko to bring a book from home to read to the class and she reads it from right to left, not left to right. “Yoko is only pretending to read!” “She’ll never make it to first grade!” the mean kittens say.
Yoko feels forlorn and dejected until a gray mouse seeks her out and admires her “secret language.” She teaches him how to write out numbers in Japanese, and soon all the little animals want to write their names in Japanese. On parent’s night, Yoko’s mother brings in a big Japanese alphabet and the teacher declares that Japanese will be the class’s second language.
Soon Japanese is everywhere in the classroom, and all the little animals, with the exception of the two mean kittens, learn to write their names in Japanese. On graduation day, the class writes their names in two languages on their diploma, but the two mean kittens hide in the closet, worried they won’t graduate. Yoko finds them and teaches them to write their names in Japanese—just in time to join the graduation march.
While this book makes Japanese seem easier to learn than it might be for a kindergarten teacher and her class, it’s a nice ideal of how such a conflict would be resolved in a fantasy world. The illustrations are adorable, and in the top corners of facing pages the author/illustrator provides a small picture of things like a cup or a dog, and its corresponding page is the Japanese translation. You or your child probably won’t pick up Japanese from this book if you don’t already read and speak it a little, but this is the kind of multicultural text schools and libraries should have to celebrate diversity and inclusion.
Recommendation: Recommended: 3-6 years
Reviewer: Yu-Han Chao