Much like how reading the novels of 18th-century author Fanny Burney can explain a lot about Jane Austen’s work, reading How Do You Live? gives us insight into the works of Hayao Miyazaki. That’s not surprising, given that he’s cited it as one of his favorite books as a child, and his upcoming (as of this writing) film is an adaptation of Genzaburō Yoshino‘s 1937 children’s classic. Not only is it easy to read this and picture Miyazaki himself in the role of Copper’s uncle, gently giving us lessons about and insight into the world, it shares the tone of many of Miyazaki’s films – a quiet, calm sensibility that doesn’t shy away from difficult topics or assume that its child audience isn’t capable of understanding the deeper and darker themes. But more than that, How Do You Live? is simply a solid work of children’s fiction.
The story, originally written as part of an educational series of books farmed out to different authors, is in the vein of such classics as Rudyard Kipling‘s Puck of Pook’s Hill and the novels of Maud Hart Lovelace in that the setting is real and there is an intent to have the child protagonist really think about both his actions and experiences. In his introduction, Neil Gaiman makes a comparison with Herman Melville‘s Moby Dick in the way the novel is written: it’s one part story, one part education, mimicking the way Melville divides his novel between the narrative and whale biology. In many ways, this is an apt comparison, although this should by no means scare you off if you’re not a Melville fan. It’s more that it’s clear that the book intends to guide and educate its reader as well as entertain them, as the Kipling novel does about the history and mythology of England or the social guidance provided by Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series. It’s an old-fashioned way of writing for children, and while it may be a bit heavy-handed by today’s standards (at least for middle grade and young adult readers; picture books get a pass most of the time), it does this remarkably well.
The story follows a young teenage boy in late 1930s Japan and sweetly mingles his experiences – which are true to any child, regardless of time or place – with musings and lessons about the way that we can all make the world a better place. Jun’ichi’s nickname, Copper, comes from one of his uncle’s first lessons, about Copernicus, whose theory of heliocentrism Uncle uses to discuss the way that people act. The tendency, he explains, is to put the self first, which he likens to the theory that the sun revolves around the earth. When people put the sun (society) in the center of the universe, they are able to work towards a less selfish view of the world, one that will eventually lead towards a more peaceful future. This is what he hopes for his nephew, hence the nickname, which keeps the idea at the forefront of the novel. Throughout his various adventures, we see Copper slowly learning to put this into practice, whether he’s understanding how other people can be hurt by his words and actions or realizing that many people do keep the earth at the center of their personal universes, and how that causes strife. This is best seen in one of the longer chapters towards the end of the book, when older students begin picking on one of his friends who refuses to bow down to them. Earlier Copper and the others in his friend group vowed to always stand up for each other, but when push comes to shove, Copper finds himself the only one who hangs back, unable to put himself forward as he promised. This makes him anxious and depressed, and he convinces himself that his act of cowardice has lost him his friends forever. It is only by finally recognizing that he’s allowed to make mistakes and have moments of weakness that he is able to move past this, showing how he has internalized his uncle’s lessons. This is nicely backed up by the time he spends in his garden, transplanting daffodils so that they’re in the sun: he finds one that has grown from so far under the earth in hopes of attaining sunlight that he realizes what he was meant to learn – that extraordinary effort and hope can have transformative results when accompanied by hard work.
These are lessons that are just as relevant in the 2020s as they were in the 1930s, although there is one thing tempering our reading of the novel today: the weight of history. The fact that we readers in 2021 know what’s coming for Copper and the world makes the whole thing bittersweet. This, however, is very likely intentional: Yoshino himself was well aware of the way the winds of war were blowing when he wrote the novel, so that hint of sadness is probably on purpose, a call away from arms at a point when things had already gone too far. But perhaps Yoshino wrote it to give a bit of hope once the world came out on the other side of the history he was facing down, and a suggestion for how things could have been done better, or at least differently. Can we take the lessons Copper learns and apply them so that things never get to that point again? Maybe, maybe not. But the overall message here is to try, much like Barbara Cooney’s Alice in her New England classic Miss Rumphius tries to find a way to make the world more beautiful. That’s a lesson that doesn’t get old.
Despite its age, How Do You Live? is every bit a story that holds up, and it’s a wonderful addition to the catalogue of children’s world literature available in English. Reading it with a mind to Miyazaki’s works gives it an extra layer that really adds to how we understand both the novel and his films, so whether you’re a fan of children’s classics or Miyazaki’s works (or both!), it’s worth picking this up. It’s a good reminder that at the end of the day, there’s always a little hope if you know where to look for it and are willing to simply try.