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Kamishibai Stories

Kamishibai Stories

By Dianne Clouet, Teaching PreK-8

An illustration from a student’s kamishibai story entitled The Bunnies (left). This captivating form of Japanese storytelling excites young authors and illustrators into creating stories of their own

W hile I’ve presented from a wide variety of literary genres over the years, the favorite of my students has always been the kamishibai. Kamishibai are Japanese stories told in a picture card format. The story is presented with only the picture facing the audience. The cards are large and the group can see the illustration the whole time the story is being read. The text for the first illustration presented is on the back of the last card, where it is printed in Japanese and English. As the tale unfolds, the front card slides off and is placed in the back, revealing a new illustration to the audience and providing the matching story text on the back of the last card to the reader. The kamishibai cards are stored in a simple but formal envelope, decorated with its own illustration and the title and author of the tale.

Vivid episodes.

My teaching apprenticeship was with Margaret Eisenstat, who went on to bring translated kamishibai to the U.S. from Japan through her company, Kamishibai for Kids. I quickly saw how these stories captivated young listeners. The stories were very dramatic and sometimes frightening, with vivid episodes. They emphasized the virtues of modest simplicity and group cohesion. In my classroom, we rarely read a kamishibai only once – our favorites were read many, many times over the course of the school year.

In the spring of 2003, a Vermont bookmaker named Linda Lembke was doing artist-in-residency work in my classroom. I showed her my kamishibai collection and told her that sometimes children wrote their own kamishibai with me informally. She offered to make miniature kamishibai envelopes to match the 8.5″ × 11″ paper on which I wrote their stories. The kamishibai project was born.

Setting parameters.

Getting started was easy because my students were so familiar with the kamishibai form. When they learned they’d be writing their own, their excitement grew. As each kamishibai was finished, it was read aloud at story time. The new story would join the class collection, and rereadings of Japanese and kindergartners’ kamishibai continued throughout the duration of the writing project.

Certain parameters, such as that each kamishibai would be only four pages, were set. This decision was made because the text for the first illustrated page was printed on the back of the last illustration card, so the end had to be present at the beginning. If children weren’t creating multiple drafts, then this rule of four pages could be viewed more flexibly. For young children, who live very much in the present moment, expecting drafts and revisions seemed inappropriate. Because the four-page rule applied to them all, it developed into a wonderfully clear vehicle through which the child’s story could unfold.

One by one.

The writing of each kamishibai took place one by one, as the other kindergartners played during their daily choice time. A table in the classroom was set aside for this activity, stocked with a box of new markers, a sharpened pencil with an eraser and four white 8.5″ × 11″ pieces of card stock on which the kamishibai would be written. The child and I would sit down and before the child began to draw, I would ask my first question – “Who are the characters in your story?” Some sample responses were “A dragon,” “Me and my mommy” and “Soldiers.” Then the next question was asked, “What is the setting of the story?” Often children would give their opening, such as “Me and mommy are on the slide at the park.” From there the child was ready to begin drawing the first illustration, with the initial two questions serving as guides.

In this process, the act of drawing was an important mechanism for developing the story. As the child drew, the ideas for the story were generated. This technique was developed partly as a response to their early levels of writing development. In some kamishibai, the first half of the four-page story was creating the setting. In these stories, the child would be encouraged to begin thinking about the story’s problem and be ready to introduce it on the third page, so that it could be resolved on the fourth. In other stories, the writer would be very interested in introducing the problem and it would appear on the second page, leaving a longer amount of storytelling for the resolution to occur.

A nod to history.

The last phase of the project was the making of the kamishibai envelopes. With a nod to the long history of Japanese art created in watercolor, the envelopes were cut out of sturdy watercolor paper. They were then presented to the children unfolded, though scored where the folds would need to be. In groups of five or six, the children painted their unfolded envelope with a watercolor wash of mixed gauche and water. On another day, when the heavy paper was dry, the children were assisted in folding the paper into its envelope form using a tool called a bone folder to which the bookmaker had introduced them. Once folded, the front of each envelope was a 9″ × 12″ colored rectangle just waiting for a cover illustration. The children again worked in small groups, each with a set of watercolors. The final touch was writing the title of the story on each cover. The author was called to my side, and with a permanent black marker, the title was written on the cover illustration. The marker was then handed to the child and he or she would sign his or her name. The child and I would carefully place the kamishibai inside the envelope and close it by inserting the tongue into the curved slot on the back of the envelope. At last, I would hold up the completed kamishibai to show the class and say, “Look! Another kamishibai is done!”

The children’s kamishibai were now held in envelopes that were miniature replicas of the envelopes holding the Japanese kamishibai they loved so well. With this phase of our project, I learned about the importance of craft and of true completion in a way that my teaching had never shown me before. The children had entered into another literary tradition and crossed culture and time. They had landed on their feet as artists.

Internetconnections Topic: Kamishibai Storytelling

1. Kamishibai for Kids: Background on kamishibai, with complete unit plan to create your own with music and ideas for using Japanese storytelling. Order kamishibai stories.

2. Kamishibai Play: A play in English or Japanese, complete with sound. Teacher guide for creating kamishibai links to Japanese writing.

3. Integrating Japanese Folk Tales Detailed guide with resources, web links and an assessment rubric for original kamishibai stories.

Courtesy of © 2007, YellowBrix, Inc.

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