"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."

Between Words: A Friendship Tale

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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.

Available May 21, 2024 (Orchard Books, Scholastic)
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The Story Behind the Story

  • 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.
  • 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.  
  • “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 strategically 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, 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