age range: 3-6 years
topics: siblings; martial arts
Mia Wenjen’s website
Young readers will enjoy this spirited debut with insightful integration of cultural exploration.
Please tell us about your book.
I had signed up for a picture book writing class at my local high school through adult education and thought that I better write a picture book before class started so there would be something to polish.
Sumo Joe was the result of a few things:
- I stood behind a big, strong man at our local Brazilian dive. Instead of tableside carving, you stand in a line behind the counter to the grill. For some reason, I had rhymes in my head that I quickly wrote down on my phone when I sat down. Those rhymes became Sumo Joe.
- I noticed the plethora of ninja picture books and figured that sumo was similar in that it’s widely known but only in a stereotypical kind of way.
What inspired you to write this story?
I wanted to show that sumo, which has a comical connotation (think big fat men in diapers), was really a sport connected to Japanese culture and religion. I hoped to inject humor in a different way.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
I had watched sumo when I lived in Japan working for Shimizu Corporation. It’s a large construction and engineering company like Bechtel. I lived in a corporate dormitory and commuted on the subway and then on a company bus. The bus had a TV and we all watched sumo when it was on.
I read every sumo book that I could get my hands on and watched a ton of videos of sumo wrestlers. I also had studied aikido when I lived in Los Angeles’ Sawtelle Japantown.
While I had studied the history of Japan when I was in college and studied Japanese while at UCLA’s Graduate Business School, I still found that I needed to read up on Japanese history.
What are some special challenges associated with conveying Japanese culture to young children?
I had to write and re-write the author’s note over and over again. First, it was too long and detailed going back thousands of years. Then, it didn’t cover modern day sumo and the rise of women in the sport. Finally, I wrote it at too high a level for the reader in terms of reading comprehension. In all, I think I rewrote the author’s note a dozen times or more.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
With the Tokyo Olympics coming up in 2020, Sumo Joe would be a tie in. Sumo was one of the sports that the Olympic committee had considered for 2020, but it wasn’t chosen. Karate was one of the sports added for 2020 instead.
Sumo Joe also works for any unit on Asia or Japan. There is also a broader message about sibling rivalry and sibling kindness. Nat Iwata’s illustrations are wonderful and also convey a message of body positivity. Sumo Joe and his friends have a range of body types, but sumo is also a sport where the biggest athlete is not necessarily always the winner.