I first put How Do You Live? by Ganzaburo Yoshino in my library queue after seeing a blurb on the internet stating that it is Hayao Miyazaki’s favorite children’s book, and it had only recently been translated into English because he was planning to come out of retirement to adapt the story as his final film. Thinking that this would be a whimsical, quick read, I looked forward to it becoming available in my Libby app.
The story was not what I was expecting, which is not exactly a bad thing. I was thinking that the book would be in the same family as my own favorite childhood tales, which included mainly fairy tales and stories filled with imaginary creatures. Given that the Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli films I am familiar with include some element of the fantastical, I assumed that How Do You Live? would also follow this pattern.
However, How Do You Live? is entirely realistic, almost to the point of being mundane. First published in 1937, the story follows a 15-year-old school boy called “Copper” by his friends and family, which is short for “Copernicus,” a nickname bestowed upon him due to his philosophical nature by his beloved uncle. The plot follows Copper through a year of school while he asks big questions (and learns big lessons) about friendship, responsibility, and his place in the world. Journal entries by Copper’s uncle are interspersed between chapters following Copper’s exploits. The journal entries are framed as letters to Copper, meant to be read at a later date to teach Copper how his personal experiences and reflections fit into the larger picture of human life. The uncle’s chapters cover a lot of ground, ranging from philosophy to chemistry to economics.
Even though this book defied my expectations by not containing a single forest spirit, talking animal, or friendly young witch, its soothing tone and gentle story was still quite enjoyable. I truly do hope that Miyazaki follows through on his plans to make an adaptation of the book, because I found myself thinking often of how charming and relaxing such a film would be: perfect for drinking a cup of tea and wrapping up in a blanket with a cat or two on a cold winter’s day. The stakes are never particularly high in How Do You Live?, but Yoshino has effectively captured how life-or-death seemingly unimportant events can seem to a child – disappointing a friend, for example, or trying to think of the perfect words to apologize for making a mistake. The adults in the book never laugh at or belittle Copper for his worries, treating his concerns with respect and guiding him while also giving him the freedom to make his own decisions. I will say that, at least to a modern reader, Copper seems much younger than 15: I can’t imagine myself enjoying this book or relating to it at all as a teenager. Reading it as an adult, though, I was very engaged in Copper’s trials and tribulations – but I pictured the character as being closer to 10 years old, despite the book’s frequent references to his age.
If you are looking for adventure on every page, this is not the book for you. However, if a quiet coming-of-age story with moments of surprising profundity sounds appealing, How Do You Live? delivers the goods.