Add this to the list of unique picture books that I’ve never seen anything like before. A story about a young girl traveling to see family in Japan and taking the annual summer visit to the big bath house with her grandma, aunties, and cousins. It is a story of family and ritual, crossing language barriers, embracing culture, and loving all the stages of life and the ways it forms every body. Take a trip to The Big Bath House by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Gracey Zhang, 2021.
The story opens with the title page showing the girl flying over mountains. And then she arrives at Baachan’s place. Familiar sights, sounds, and people surround her. With much hugging and commenting, they all head out together, walking in the familiar wooden sandals and robes.
They go to the big bath house together. A place where gardens and birds abound, where clothes are shed, and chimes and voices sing. Baachan helps wash the girl, and aunties care for each other. Kids play and dance in the soap until it is time to slip into the big bath.
They are all together in the big bath, releasing the stress and collective sighs of the year. They soak it in together, with all their different bodies telling the different time and stories of their lives. “Beautiful bodies.”
And when they are done, they wrap in soft towels and have shaved ice and say goodbye to the bath house. They walk home in the cool night air, drinking in the quiet, sleeping homes and the unsaid connection once again made with Baachan and family.
What a special book. I absolutely love the celebration of family and culture in these pages. The normalcy of life spent and bodies lived in. I feel honored to see into a tradition so different from my own. But the connection of family and love is easily translatable and it makes me smile with recognition.
There is a lovely author’s note in the back about Maclear’s childhood summers spent in Japan with her grandmother. This is a deeply personal story, reflecting the joys and comforts of her family memories and also “to share and celebrate this other way of being” as Maclear puts it. A picture book with naked bodies is a rarity in the West and I’m sure this one has gotten some questioning responses; but I love the way this different perspective has been shared here with grace and honor. There is no shame in viewing bodies, but it is balanced by great respect too. Maclear’s story built on personal memories invite us in and Zhang’s lovely illustrations show us the beauty, joy, and acceptance that is found in this special ritual. Really well done.