Q&A: “Kodoku” author and illustrator William Emery and Hanae Rivera

A modern day hero tale telling the real-world story of Kenichi Horie, who sailed from his home in Osaka, Japan to the shores of San Francisco–alone–in 1962, Kodoku masterfully recounts Kenichi’s adventures in both textual and visual narrative. From the awe at the Pacific Ocean’s majesty, to the encroaching sense of loneliness while isolated on his boat, the Mermaid; to the splendor at reaching the West coast of America, author William Emery and illustrator Hanae Rivera capture the wonder of Kenichi’s story for a book appealing to all, both young and old.

For this post, Fall 2012 intern Daniel Wikey does a Q&A session with the two.

How did you first hear about Kenichi Horie?

WILLIAM EMERY: Joanne Chan, former Marketing


William Emery

Director at Heyday, first turned me on to the story after she visited the San Francisco Maritime Museum and saw the Mermaid there. I fell in love with his real life   adventure instantly but didn’t think I would be writing a book about it until I encountered Hanae Rivera’s art. She is able to give the ocean such muscle and character and there is so much love and terror in her lines. Kenichi’s story came alive for me when we started telling it together.

What inspired you most about Kenichi’s story?
HANAE RIVERA: It’s the classic hero’s journey as an immediate true story, bridging my two worlds, local and ancestral. So few people take such definite action to pursue their dreams and, so romanced have I been by a lifetime of devouring heroic tales, I believe that’s theway to live.

What was it about Kenichi’s story that you thought would translate into a great children’s book?

WE: It was the purity of his dream. I used to stare at the stars in rural Kansas and dream so richly of just… going there. Kenichi did the same with the ocean, but where my desire for the stars turned into storytelling, Kenichi actually kept that dream alive into adulthood and then displayed intelligence and bravery make it real. He made his dream real. He should be every kid’s hero.

Did you use any creative license in adapting Kenichi Horie’s story? Why or why not?

WE: I originally stayed very close to the text of Kenichi’s journal. It has an artless charm to it and I thought the authenticity would be refreshing. Butultimately it didn’t carry the sense of the-world-is-magic-and-magic-is-real that I wanted and so I created a more poetic and evocative voice. I didn’t invent any of the episodes, but I did cut a lot out, including moments where Kenichi, in his loneliness, splits himself into two people, lazy Kenichi and regular Kenichi and bickers with himself. He also witnessed a high atmosphere nuclear explosion near Bikini Atoll. I tried to keep that scene but ultimately it derailed the tone of the story too much. There was so much I cut out that I wrote a full length children’s play about Kenichi and his journey as well.

WE: I had never written for children before Kodoku. There are many restraints in doing so, vocabulary you can’t use, subject matter, like nuclear arms, that need to be avoided, etc., and telling the story in a way that satisfied me as a writer while meeting those restraints was certainly challenging. Ultimately, and this is so often true in art, those limitations were vital to the creative process.

What source(s) did you use to research Kenichi’s story?

WE: A translation of the journal he kept on his first voyage was published in the sixties. It’s also called Kodoku. It had everything I needed.

What age group or audience did you have in mind while writing this book?

WE: Owing to biographical and psychological quirks, I didn’t really appreciate children’s books until I was an adult. A friend in NYC handed me a new edition of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery one day in a bookstore and I started reading it, casually, as though it was just another book. By the end, I was in tears and just stood there blankly in the aisle. My friend had no idea what was wrong with me. She assumed I had already read it. So I wanted to write a book that adults would enjoy as well as the intended age group, which is 8-10 years of age. Storytelling should transcend these categories.

Explain the significance of the title – what does Kodoku mean?

WE: Kodoku was the title Kenichi gave to his journal. In our book, I describe it as ‘the cry of loneliness.’ It’s a difficult to translate word that evokes the feeling of complete isolation. Children are very close to this feeling and exploring it is vital to the process of growing up. Kenichi is not only braving the Pacific Ocean, but his own deep loneliness. He spent 94 days in solitary confinement on the Mermaid and ultimately conquering the fear of being alone was the achievement he valued most.

WE: I have a very wide range of influences and most of them don’t have much to do with children’s books so instead I’ll use this space to promote the fantastic Shaun Tan. He’s creating important, beautiful work for children that makes me want to use enthusiastic language inappropriate to this space. Every single thing he does is perfect and his range is phenomenal. I also recently read Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls and was floored by it. Jim Kay’s illustrations are amazing and the images and texts just sing together. Anyone not aware of these people should seek out their books immediately.

Hanae Rivera

Hanae Rivera

HR: Reflecting on what all the many favorite, well-thumbed and beautiful children’s books in my collection have in common, the universal trait is darkness. I think most kids, even the youngest, are fascinated by a hint of danger: something great and unknown and unhuman, winding its way insidiously through a story. This lives in the art, something in the lines portraying the weight of the maleficent force just outside the page border.  Stylistically, I think I went somewhere in between two favorite genres: the intricately theatrical compositions of Errol Le Cain, to the richly textured, vivid more pastel-like art (childhood favorites being The Quinkins by Percy Tresize & Dick Roughsey, Anna and the Echo Catcher by Adam John Munthe & Elizabeth Falconer: both totally creepy).

Hanae, what medium do you use in your illustrations? Why did you choose this method for Kodoku?

HR: For the imagery of Kodoku, I created large-scale illustrations with oil pastel. I chose this medium because I wanted to use the creamy, painterly aspects to animate the ocean’s many faces. Oil pastels are not oft-used in children’s books and I thought this, too, would create the impression of meeting a new vision of the familiar marine subject.


What is your typical process in creating illustrations to accompany a text?
HR: Alongside discussion with others involved in structuring the presentation, my personal focus is on how best to tell the story. The limitations imposed by putting narrative first are a great artistic challenge. I break down the text into its key points and plan illustrations of these with compositions and subject matter giving the most information and supportive mood. Once roughly storyboarded, I compare the images against each other, editing compositions so that the story flows from one page to another and selecting color palates accordingly.