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Monday, Oct. 9, 2000

Limp prose from an angel of mercy

TOTTO-CHAN'S CHILDREN: A Goodwill Journey to the Children of the World, by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi; translated by Dorothy Britton. Kodansha International, 2000, 222 pp., with photographs, 2,500 yen (cloth).

Tetsuko Kuroyanagi is a familiar figure on Japanese television quiz shows. She's the one decked out in kimono with a perky bun on top her head and ear-to-ear bangs (that's "fringe" to you British).

This style invites caricature, yet even those who don't speak Japanese soon realize that there is nothing ridiculous about this bright, confident woman. Kuroyanagi is also a leading light on the Japanese talk-show scene and has been for more than two decades.

Even outside Japan, many are familiar with her best-selling book, "Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window," which has been translated in 33 countries.

In this book, Kuroyanagi wrote about her expulsion from first grade for disruptive behavior and the subsequent alternative school she attended where self-expression was exercised. This book convinced former UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Fund) executive director James P. Grant that Kuroyanagi should be their new good-will ambassador because "she certainly understands children."

Kuroyanagi accepted the post and has since made annual trips to raise international awareness of the plight of children who live in the most distressed countries. In this capacity, she raised $26 million through her television specials and fundraising appeals. Grant is not the first, nor will he be the last, to recognize Kuroyanagi's understanding of children, as well as her tireless efforts to bring them a better life.

"Totto-chan's Children" is Kuroyanagi's accounts of her trips on behalf of UNICEF from 1984 to 1996. (The Japanese edition was published in 1997.)

In the prologue, Kuroyanagi testifies in her unrhymed poetry to the horrors that children suffer in countries torn apart by civil wars, natural disasters and poverty.

These six pages and the two pages of the epilogue are the most poignant and direct writing to be found in the book.

What about the other 214 pages?

Undoubtedly, civil wars, natural disasters and poverty are powerful topics. Basic information about the political and economic situations of the countries is horrific in itself. Kuroyanagi demonstrates her compassion and commitment throughout "Totto-chan's Children," so what's the problem?

It is said that writers must seek out words that are pearls, not potatoes. The problem is that the words in "Totto-chan's Children" are not pearls, but potatoes -- sweet potatoes, with brown sugar and marshmallows on top.

For example, consider this one passage in which Kuroyanagi comments on the misfortune of some boys who lost their hair due to trauma suffered while performing forced labor: "How sad it was. Mere children, too! What bitter experiences they must have had."

Some people will have absolutely no problem digesting this sweet fare laced with limp adjectives and feeble verbs. Others will be turned off by the incongruous pairing of genteel diction and harsh subject matter.

A proliferation of exclamatory sentences also weakens the narrative: "Inoculation!" "Let's Get on with the Reconstruction!" and "What We Want Most is Freedom!" are chapter subheadings where the exclamation point acts as shorthand for stronger emotions.

No doubt Kuroyanagi is a sensitive, kind soul. I can clearly imagine the cadences of polite Japanese that are surely evident in the Japanese-language edition. They just don't translate well into English.

This is unfortunate because some might mistake her gentle style of speech for ineffectiveness.

The truth is that Kuroyanagi is extremely effective. The children obviously adore her. She is no stranger to the mass media, which she utilizes to disseminate UNICEF's message and raise necessary funds.

Nonetheless, I had to read about 60 percent of the book before I came to this conclusion.

It would be easy to dismiss Kuroyanagi as a lightweight. Her interactions with the children focus on games, songs and acts of kindness. If you find yourself reacting with thoughts that what the children really need is food, clothing, shelter and medicine, consider the case of the orphan girl in Ethiopia, sick with diarrhea.

A health worker handed her a life-saving medicine, which the girl refused to drink. She dropped it and was given several more, dropping each one in turn. Then Kuroyanagi encouraged the girl: "Now then, dear, you must drink this, you know. If you do you'll get better. Drink it and see." She handed her the cup and the little girl drank it, then drank another offered to her in this way.

Kuroyanagi writes, "I was choked with emotion. What that child needed was not medicine or food, but a gentle word."

Totto-chan's children are hungry not only for food, but also for love and attention. In fact, these are necessary if they are to grow into strong, capable adults.

Sadly the relief workers are so busy providing emergency care they can scarcely see to the emotional needs of traumatized children.

Tetsuko Kuroyanagi must certainly seem like an angel -- this striking woman with beautiful clothes who plays with them, sings with them, simply pays attention to them and then goes home to raise money for them.

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