Nori by artist Rumi Hara, published by Drawn+Quarterly, presents the world around a feisty three-year-old Japanese girl as she grows through a wondrous and exciting year. It is told in a series of short stories showing the adventures of Nori and her grandmother.
These range from mundane, such as getting in trouble at school and meeting new friends because of it, to life-changing events, such as winning a trip to Hawaii in a neighborhood raffle. In all of the cases, the world is magical and new: big kids are seen as powerful and hold deep wisdom, adults are complex giants, and there is always an opportunity to chase down a new adventure, even if running away stresses out the grandmother.
The stories in Nori are rich with Japanese culture. They are bookended by bats, which are first seen as dancers in costume at a festival and then in real life flying after Nori. Rather than being fearful, the grandmother explains that people should always invite bats into their homes for health and prosperity.
Some stories show more folklore, such as the rabbit who lives on the moon and is always busy making mocha. Others give insight into Japanese culture in bustling Osaka of the early 1980s, such as when the grandmother attempts to turn down the trip won in a raffle since she does not speak English and is told that she must go to Hawaii to honor the local business association and to promote the neighborhood’s affluence for being able to offer such a luxury.
Nori’s art suits the point of view so perfectly with its strong line work and hints of color in the shading. It is almost as if the world is still being filled in as Nori discovers more and more about it. The viewpoint also moves into the grandmother’s eyes from time to time, giving the reader a deeper perspective as Nori listens and understands more about how the world works. Layouts are smooth and engaging with some panels tightly kept within their square borders while others open endlessly with other panels set inside.
Fittingly for a story that slips into the perspective of a three-year-old, the narrative in Nori at times becomes unreliable. Nori watches the creatures in the water streaming through the neighborhood drainage system only to see them grow and talk. She imagines swimming herself among the fish, crawfish, and a tadpole, who teases her as he rapidly transforms into a frog calling her name. The call comes again in her grandmother’s voice, snapping Nori back to reality. At least, the fanciful reality seen through a child’s eyes where bats come to visit and dance and packs of dogs in the park can become penguins on a snowy day.
Thanks to its fun adventures, magical worldview, and educational backing, Nori is a great family read, whether grownups and kids reading alongside one another or alone as an adult with a child’s heart.