10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

Translated Versions Of Some Of The Nation’s Most Beloved Stories

By Kirsty Kawano
April 16, 2020
Book Corner, Education

With school out—almost until summer—enrich your family’s days with these stories from Japan’s most famous children’s writers. Let your imagination roam free.

This selection is composed of the best children’s books translated to English by some of Japan’s most famous authors. Many of the titles have been so popular that they have even developed into series. Most of these are picture books, with distinctive graphic styles, and all of them are stories that will pull you and your children into their own fantasy world.

Even if English-language versions, these books will give you a glimpse of Japanese life and a variety of ways of looking at that life—whether it’s through the eyes of a boy, a rabbit, a mouse, or a more exotic creature. These are beloved modern classics that readers will never grow out of!

1. Hi, Butterfly! by Taro Gomi

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

Taro Gomi is one of Japan’s most popular author-illustrators for children due to his characteristic drawing style and relatable humor. It’s hard to go wrong with any book by this prolific writer, who particularly has many titles for preschoolers. In Hi, Butterfly!, we join a young boy as he chases a butterfly through town and country, leading to surprising results. 

Japanese title: きいろいのは ちょうちょ, kiiro no ha choucho

Author: 五味太郎, Gomi Taro 

Reading level: Preschool and up 

2. It Might Be An Apple by Shinsuke Yoshitake

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

Shinsuke Yoshitake is another author-illustrator with a characteristic visual style and engaging view of life. This book takes us on the imaginative and wild train of thought of a boy looking at what appears to be an apple—but may not be an apple! As well as being a lot of fun, the story encourages readers to question what they see in the world. 

Japanese title: りんごかもしれない, ringo kamoshirenai

Author: ヨシタケシンスケ, Yoshitake Shinsuke

Reading level: From preschool to about age 10

3. Gracie Meets a Ghost by Keiko Sena

Gracie Wears Glasses Book

When Gracie the rabbit goes looking for her lost glasses on a mountain at night, her poor eyesight frustrates a ghost’s attempts to scare her. Keiko Sena’s illustrative style is simple, yet expressive, and her stories often end in an unexpected way. This particular book is a great way to start a conversation with a child about needing to wear glasses.

Japanese title: めがねうさぎ, megane usagi

Author: せな けいこ, Sena Keiko

Reading level: Age 4–8

4. Blackie, the Crayon by Miwa Nakaya

10 of Japan’s Best Children’s Books – in English

Blackie gets left out of a group drawing that starts happily but is ruined by selfishness. Later, together with a mechanical pencil, he fixes the artwork and saves the day. The cute, simple drawings make it easy to identify with Blackie’s feelings and final triumph.

Japanese title: くれよんのくろくん, kureyon no kurokun 

Author: なかや みわ, Nakami Miwa

Reading level: Age 4–8

5. Little Daruma and Little Tengu: A Japanese Children’s Tale by Satoshi Kako

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English
This is a tale of ingenuity, as Little Daruma uses the things around him to emulate the clothing, belongings, and even the very long nose, of his friend Little Tengu. The detailed drawings here will capture kids’ attention, while the patient support offered by Daddy Daruma will endear him to parents. 

Japanese title: だるまちゃんとてんぐちゃん, daruma-chan to tengu-chan

Author: 加古 里子, Kako Satoshi 

Reading level: Age 4–8

6. Guri and Gura by Rieko Nakagawa

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

This is the story of two mice who like to cook. When they find a giant egg in the forest, they decide to make an enormous sponge cake. Just like the words, the illustrations by Yuriko Yamawaki create a warm safe world that is full of friends to share good times with. Every Japanese child has grown up with Guri and Gura, who have gone on to many more adventures. 

Japanese title: ぐりとぐら, guri to gura

Author: なかがわ りえこ, Nakagawa Rieko

Reading level: Age 4–8

7. You Look Yummy! by Tatsuya Miyanishi

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

A misunderstanding of sorts leads to a heartfelt story of dinosaurs who discover that the bond of family isn’t necessarily a biological one. This huge hit of a book has spawned a series, an animated film, and many devoted fans.

Japanese title: おまえうまそうだな, omae umasou dana

Author: 宮西 達也, Miyanishi Tatsuya

Reading level: Age 4–10

8. The 14 Forest Mice and the Harvest Moon Watch by Kazuo Iwamura

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

Kazuo Iwamura gives us a charming story and pictures of a family of ten mice, their parents, and grandparents. This book is a great introduction to the Japanese practice of autumnal moon viewing and includes particularly beautiful illustrations of the light of the moon. With lots of visual detail and insights into the various personalities of the many characters, there’s a lot to keep readers busy.

Japanese title: 14ひきのおつきみ, juuyon hiki no otsukimi

Author: いわむら かずお, Iwamura Kazuo 

Reading level: Age 4–8

9. A Friend by Shuntaro Tanikawa

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

This book is for school-aged children and reflects on what makes a friend: “A friend is someone you feel like walking home with.” And in a reminder of life before Covid-19: “A friend is someone who doesn’t avoid you, even when you have a cold.” This book touches on the issue of bullying and is often used in grade six elementary school classes. Simple illustrations by Makoto Wada add further emotion to the words.

Japanese title: ともだち, tomodachi

Author: 谷川 俊太郎, Tanikawa Shuntaro 

Reading level: Age 6–12

10.  Night on the Milky Way Train by Kenji Miyazawa

10 Of Japan’s Best Children’s Books—In English

This is one of the great classics of Japanese literature, written by one of its best. This fantasy tells of two boys who take a train ride through the stars. Among the nine other stories included in this compilation is another childhood favorite, The Restaurant of Many Orders (注文の多い料理店, chuumon no ooi ryouri-ten). This is a perfect book for older kids, and their parents.

Japanese title: 銀河鉄道の夜, ginza tetsudou no yoru

Author: 宮沢 賢治, Miyazawa Kenji  

Reading level: Age 8 and up

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