November 11, 2021

The Big Bath House

By Gracey Zhang & Kyo Maclear
Review by
A girl visits a traditional Japanese bath house with her grandmother in this tender picture book that offers a different way of looking at nudity and the human body.
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This exuberant celebration of family, written in an inviting second-person voice, portrays a girl’s trip overseas with her mother to visit Baachan, her grandmother, and her experience at a traditional Japanese bath house. When they finally arrive and reunite with all of her aunts and cousins, the girl runs into Baachan’s arms, the love between them unspoken and “understood,” a word repeated throughout the text.

After changing out of their clothes, everyone heads to the bath house. Author Kyo Maclear details the sensory delights of the journey—the clip-clop of their wooden sandals on the road and the sound of the breeze as it rustles the fabric of their yakuta. When the group enters the bath house, Maclear slips seamlessly into pleasing, fluid rhymes: “The water will flow / and the garden will grow / at the big bath house.”

Illustrator Gracey Zhang’s energetic watercolors have a relaxed sense of line as she reverently brings to life the Japanese setting and the easy camaraderie among the girl’s family. She depicts the bath house in warm shades of rose and embraces the bodies of the people there by refusing to conceal them. Readers see nude women of all ages washing one another and relaxing together in the big bath. “You’ll all dip your bodies, / your newly sprouting, / gangly bodies, / your saggy, shapely, / jiggly bodies, / your cozy, creased, / ancient bodies,” Maclear writes. “Beautiful bodies,” she declares.

In her closing note, Maclear explains that The Big Bath House was inspired by her own childhood trips to her grandmother’s home in Japan. At the bath house they’d visit together, she notes, “the idea that bodies should always be private and clothed wasn’t the norm.”

The book is infused with great tenderness as it chronicles a child’s supremely happy memory. In its final image, Baachan and her granddaughter hold hands. “Someday,” Maclear writes, “you’ll find the words, / but for now, / you have this.” That Maclear finally found the words is a gift to readers.

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The Big Bath House

The Big Bath House

By Gracey Zhang & Kyo Maclear
Random House
ISBN 9780593181959

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