I mentioned this book in my prior review of The Paper Dragon. They share certain similarities, not the least of them being a protagonist faced with an apparently insuperable problem who finds a clever way to address this problem.
Shibumi and the Kitemaker,(no link because, to my surprise and disappointment, it appears to be out of print and only available as ridiculously expensive new copies or used copies of uncertain provenance) by the famous children's author Mercer Mayer (most well-known for his "Little Critter" books) is, like The Paper Dragon, an invented mythology or folk tale based on Eastern tropes and imagery. It takes place in a country similar to, and obviously based on, pre-modern Japan. A daughter is born to an unnamed Emperor, who names her Shibumi, and declares that she is the most precious thing in the world to him – above all wealth, power, and even the Heavens themselves. Accordingly he does all in his power to keep her safe and happy, walling her off from any contact with the rest of the world and raising her to be innocent, kind, and unafraid.
This backfires, however, when Shibumi discovers by accident that the city beyond her walled garden – a place she imagined must be a wondrous land indeed – turns out to be a sordid, squalid place where many of the people, even children like herself, live filthy, short, hard lives in poverty. But she has wisdom enough to realize that simply speaking to her father will not change anything.
She devises a plan, and begins calling the royal kitemaker to build her ever-larger kites. When one has been made that is large enough to actually carry a man aloft, the kitemaker shows he suspects something behind her new hobby. "For a kite to be true, its purpose must be stated."
"I wish it would end the suffering in my father's city."
"And how will you do that?"
"I cannot tell you."
"Whatever you ask of me, as long as it is part of what this kite must do, I will do it for you without question."
"Then I must fly the kite from the highest tower of the castle… and my father will have you put to death because of it."
Shibumi's plan is a very childlike, yet powerful one. She ties herself to the kite, and has the kitemaker fly her into the sky, with the requirement that she will not come down until either the city is as beautiful as the castle, or the castle is as squalid as the city.
The Emperor proves that he did not lie when he claimed he valued Shibumi above all things, and calls together his councillors and nobles, ordering them to rebuild the entire city in a night.
The nobles, however, think the Emperor mad. "You cannot change in one night what has taken years to become!"
To address this problem, they decide to eliminate the source; an assassin will kill the kitemaker, causing the kite to spiral out of control and crash. But the kitemaker sees the assassin and takes a desperate chance, leaping from the tower – and a great wind comes and carries him and Shibumi away.
The power of Shibumi and the Kitemaker partly comes from the fact that this is only the first part of the story; the nobles have underestimated the Emperor badly, and he has his treacherous councillors imprisoned, commands that a thousand kites be flown above the city in her memory, and sets about trying to fulfill Shibumi's wish despite her loss. This ignites a civil war which the Emperor desperately tries to win, but at length he grows too weary to continue and orders the kites taken down.
But a young samurai who remembers how this all began wonders if, by some chance, Shibumi survived that night… and sets out to find her.
This is an absolutely beautiful children's book. Those familiar only with Mercer Mayer's "Little Critter" books will be stunned by the delicate beauty of the paintings in Shibumi and the Kitemaker, and the climax of the book can bring a tear to my eye.
This is a perfectly told legend of morals, heroism, choices, cleverness, and courage, with the young girl Shibumi dominating the story even during the times she is not visible. At the end, her father dying but satisfied, he tells her "What you started by just flying a kite is so difficult to continue. Promise you will keep trying, in my place."
Shibumi promises, taking her father's place as ruler (and it is implied, though never stated, perhaps with the young Samurai as her consort). And…
That day, one hundred thousand kites flew above the city. To this day, they are still flying. And both the city and the palace are still beautiful.