Orchard Books, Scholastic
ISBN-13: 978-1338736250
Grades: Preschool-3rd
Ages: 4-8

Between Words: A Friendship Tale




Kai is used to following the seasons with Pa from place to new place where people speak languages unfamiliar to his ears. When they finally settle in a valley full of pools, Kai tries to invite the other children to join in his play, but the strangeness of his words drives them away. Frustrated, he kicks his most treasured stone into one of the pools and in his search for it, finds something even more valuable.

Dive into a whimsical tale of unexpected friendship, told with compassion and warmth. With every brushstroke, Saki Tanaka paints a radiant world where bonds are formed beyond language barriers.




You don't always need words to make a friendship bloom. A touching ode to connection and belonging by debut picture book author-illustrator, Saki Tanaka.

Available May 21, 2024

★ "Through powerful visual storytelling, this exquisite tale makes clear that words aren’t necessary to develop a truly lasting bond... A pitch-perfect tale for shy friend-makers everywhere."
–– Kirkus (Starred-Review)

Early Praise

Lauren Dennis-Perelmuter, Founder and CEO of The Art Box Academy

"Between Words is emotional, beautiful, and relevant for both children and adults. It conveys through the stunning illustrations and powerful words what Kai is experiencing as an outsider, yearning to be included. Most of us at some point in our lives will or have experienced this too. It's a must for your home, classroom, school, or family library."

Sarah Scheldt, Early elementary educator, literacy specialist 

“Saki Tanaka’s beautifully illustrated and touching tale stands as a profound reminder that empathy, compassion, and understanding are the true languages that unite us all.”

Mike Curato, Award-winning author and illustrator of Flamer and the Little Elliot series


Lizzie Harris, Poet and Author of Stop Wanting

"Between Words is a moving, gorgeously rendered story about finding your place, and the little acts of warmth that spark connection."

Lynn Brunelle, Emmy Award-winning writer for Bill Nye the Science Guy and best-selling children’s book author

"A beautiful story about the power of imagination, communication, and friendship. Though languages and customs can be different, the universal language of a smile connects us all."

Katy Anderson, Chief Philanthropy Officer, Denver Public Library Friends Foundation

 "I read Between Words to my kids and they loved it! We talked about how people can speak different languages, be friends, and understand each other. It led to some really interesting questions and dialogue and was unlike any book we've read together."

Cátia Chien, Author and illustrator of The Bear and the Moon, a Society of Illustrators Gold Medal Winner for Original Art

"Magical. Vivid. Stunning. Saki's images and words will transport you."

Anthony Gaskin, Early elementary educator, children's book author

"In Between Words, Saki Tanaka has woven a tale of bravery and courage reminding us how lonely childhood can be. Kai, the young boy in the story, tenderly emphasizes the reality that we have no control over what life we are born into – it is up to us to mold the world in which we would like to coexist. The warm tones of the illustrations reflect the warm and kind spirit of Kai and help the reader to get comfortable with his journey." 

★ "Through powerful visual storytelling, this exquisite tale makes clear that words aren’t necessary to develop a truly lasting bond... A pitch-perfect tale for shy friend-makers everywhere."
–– Kirkus (Starred-Review)

The Story Behind the Story

  • Feelings I grappled with are mirrored in Kai’s journey: the awkwardness of looking and sounding different, and the frustration of “looking the part” in my country of birth but still feeling like an outsider.  
  • It was important to showcase an intersection of cultures in this book. I drew inspiration from differences and unexpected similarities between my Japanese and Mexican heritage.
  • “Kai” means “ocean” in Japanese. The name carries my hope that, like this large body of water, what separates us can also connect us—kind gestures and helping hands can build bridges across all sorts of barriers and borders.

Other themes and hopes

Struggling to find the right words made it difficult to form friendships. Overtime I found special ways to forge friendships that worked well. I still use them to this day!

These moments are reflected in the very deliberately wordless section of the book. It is my hope that readers will realize they aren't alone in this experience, and that the seeming silence of these pages illustrate how connections can be sparked without words.

As I developed this story, I drew on my memory of not being able to speak a word of English on my first day at the international school I was attending.

When I anchored my experience as an outsider at the heart of Kai’s journey, the story clicked into place.

I remember feeling lost on the playground, when I noticed a girl. She smiled at me, I waved at her, she waved back and that was the beginning of a wordless friendship that helped me feel like I belonged. 

Feeling lost in a foreign school

Learning to make friends