Temple Alley Summer by the Japanese writer Sachiko Kashiwaba is an enchanting children’s novel that tells not one but two ghost stories, cleverly and charmingly interwoven with each other. Spread over the course of one summer, the plot follows Kazu, a school kid who sees a ghost in a white kimono one night, as he slowly uncovers the legend of Kimyo Temple, one clue at a time. With ghost-girl Akari, he tries to track down an unfinished fantasy story once serialized in a magazine, determined to find the author and discover the ending. Coupled with evocative black-and-white illustrations by Miho Satake, the book is reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones’s wit and creative imagination, and Studio Ghibli’s wholesomeness; it comes, too, with a delicious slice-of-life feel to it, written in a voice that is markedly different from the usual narrative templates of western authors.
The Studio Ghibli comparison isn’t amiss given that Kashiwaba’s 1979 novel The Marvelous Village Veiled in Mist served as the primary inspiration for Spirited Away (2001). A prolific writer for children and young adult audiences, she has won several accolades in Japan, although she isn’t discussed or referenced enough in western speculative fiction circles. Despite the layout of the plot being different from the conventional models prevalent in children’s novels by western writers, Temple Alley Summer is a very easy-to-follow and engaging read, filled with heartwarming characters and twists and turns at every page.
The main protagonist, Kazu, is a young boy filled with empathy and an inquisitive curiosity about the world around him. When he glimpses ghost-girl Akari one night, he is surprised that she shows up at school the next day as a classmate whom everyone (except him) seems to know. This pulls him down into a deeper mystery that prompts him to probe his family history and local legends—and question his moral stances.
Kazu quickly figures out that his neighbour Ms Minakami is hiding more than she lets on, and may have stolen the missing Buddhist statuette from his family altar. Yet, at every point, he reacts with kindness and understanding, as he learns to deal with difficult adults, think quickly on his feet, and find ways of helping those in need. Even his friendship with Akari is endearing, founded upon respect and trust, as opposed to teenage attraction. When he finds out that Akari has come back from the dead, for example, he goes to great lengths to protect her.
In her past life, Akari had died very young from a terminal illness, and her mother had unwittingly brought her spirit back when she had come to pray at Kazu’s grandfather’s funeral. While Kazu’s classmates speculate whether or not he has a “crush” on their classmate (and where a western writer may have been tempted to include a love triangle), Kazu’s generous actions are motivated simply by his desire to ensure that Akari really has a second chance at life. As an adolescent, he is remarkably self-aware, kind-hearted and committed to doing the right thing, without coming off as too perfect or a goody-two-shoes.
At times, the novel’s central friendship reminded me of another children’s book, Season of Secrets by Sally Nicholls (2009). Nicholls’s novel also deals with questions of grief, death, and moving on: in it, the young Molly is grieving the death of her mother, and befriends the Green Man (the spirit of summer and spring) when she stumbles upon an injured man in an abandoned barn. The friendship teaches her about the cycles of life, death and rebirth, and when to let go. In a similar manner, Kazu and Akari teach each other valuable lessons in living and loving.
In her earlier life, Akari would read snippets of another ghost story embedded within this narrative, “The Moon On the Left.” It appeared in a magazine in serialized form, but Akari died before the story was complete. While looking for older issues of the magazine, the two friends discover that the author had abandoned the story halfway. Most bookworms know too well the painful feeling of waiting for a book’s sequel to release (George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, anyone?), or the abject panic when an author dies with their manuscript incomplete. Kashiwaba’s talent particularly shines when she succeeds in mirroring the protagonists’ frustration with the reader’s own page-turning curiosity about what happens next.
Akari’s favorite fantasy short story is dark and intricately crafted, with a deliciously folkloric touch to it. It depicts a grim and poverty-stricken world where children are sold off by their parents, and a wicked witch enslaves them for her own selfish ends. It raises important questions about love and sacrifice, which in turn, echo the themes explored in the frame narrative. The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner also features short tales (usually recounted by a character) that complement the moral lesson in the novel as a whole; but Kashiwaba takes it a step further by turning the tale into a focal point of the main plot.
The slow pace of this book also complements its slice-of-life vibes, with glimpses into Japanese cuisine, folklore, and culture. In fact, the frequent mentions of food are particularly mouthwatering, and add to the immersive experience by making the reader pause and savour the small moments in daily life that are often taken for granted. Although mysteries abound, at no point does the novel feel too frightening (though the inner story has its scary moments), and it is perfect for middle-grade readers and above. By the end of the book, the two strands wonderfully come together for a heartwarming conclusion that celebrates the power of friendship, kindness, and human connection.
Although I personally adored this book, I do feel that it has some minor flaws. For instance, the worldbuilding isn’t entirely cohesive. When Akari comes back to life, she has a new “invisible” mom to take care of her. It is never clear if this mom is a guardian spirit of the temple or someone else, or exactly what the laws and rules of Kimyo Temple are. Moreover, many of the mysteries are resolved when the children talk to the right adults or ask the right questions—but the revelations seem to arrive all at once. When Kazu’s attempts to find out about the secret shrine all lead to dead ends, he reaches out to a relative who immediately provides all the answers in a couple of emails. Of course, since this is a children’s book, every piece of the puzzle doesn’t have to fit exactly and the few tiny plot-holes will not detract the reader’s enjoyment at all. Plus, Avery Udagawa’s English translation reads quite lucidly, without any stilted phrasing, and conveys cultural differences with nuance.
In recent years, children's and young adult fiction have increasingly focused on bleak and dystopic futures, where characters often face nearly insurmountable hurdles and their hard-won victories often feel bittersweet. Temple Alley Summer is a refreshing break from all that, operating on the dreamy and poetic logic of magic realism. The lack of any pop culture references adds a semi-timeless quality to the tale, set in a world where adults can still learn from their mistakes, where kindness and compassion can work the strangest miracles, and where everyone gets a second chance if they believe in themselves.
If you are looking for a cozy read, then Kashiwaba’s words and Satake’s lovely illustrations are sure to enfold you like a warm hug, taking you to a world of strange ghosts, idyllic summers, childhood friendships, and delightful magic. Temple Alley Summer is definitely slated to be a children’s classic. And for adults who feel that life has lost its spark, this endearing story-within-a-story book is sure to make you smile again.