Author Spotlight Series · illustrations · multilingual · picture book

The Smile Shop: A Tribute to Language and London

Leave a comment on this blog post for the chance to win a copy of The Smile Shop.

About 15 years ago I was invited to a book fair in Mexico for the first time, and since then I have visited the country many times. Although my understanding of the language is terribly limited I have picked up some words in Spanish.

“Sonrisa” is one of them. It means “smile” and I liked the sound so much that I repeated it again and again in my head. Then I came up with a word “sonrisaría” although there was no such word.

“Librería” means bookshop, and likewise “panadería” bakery, “verdulería” vegetable store and so on. I thought the suffix -ría would make it sound like a shop. So, “sonrisaría” would be a shop that sold smiles. Almost immediately I got a story! I drew pictures and added some text in my very basic Spanish in pencil on the back of some proof sheets.

It’s a simple story: a boy goes to a market and looks round the shops: bookshop, vegetable store, bakery. . . He buys a hat at a hat shop, and as he is about to go home, he sees a sign saying “Sonrisaría” outside one of the shops. Out of curiosity he goes in and asks the man at the counter whether they sell smiles. The man tells the boy that a smile is not something you can buy. “A smile is something you exchange and share with someone” says the man, and smiles. So does the boy. Of course, the final version in English has more meat in the story.

I thought of publishing it in Mexico because the idea started with a Spanish word. But it made more sense to do it with one of the publishers in UK where I had been published since the beginning of my career.

Looking back at the beginning of my career, I realized I had been working on my first picture book Angry Arthur written by Hiawyn Oram almost exactly 40 years ago. The book came out in 1982. It was translated into several languages and won the Mother Goose Award that was awarded for an artist’s first book.

I lived and worked in London from the early 80s to 2009, for almost 30 years. When my mother became ill and needed to be looked after, I decided to leave my beloved city for good and return to Japan. Although I’m now living in Japan, I am still working with UK publishers.

I was born and brought up in Tokyo, but in a way I feel more attached to London than Tokyo.

During my childhood and youth Tokyo transformed itself under an economic boom. I had lived in the same town for more than twenty years, but it was hard to remember what its streets had looked like, say, 10 years before. The city changed and grew continuously. Sometimes I felt like a stranger in the city of my birth.

I arrived in London when I was 23 years old not knowing anyone and speaking very little English. I wanted to see the world outside and think about my future in a place where I could start from scratch. I was interested in visual art, but didn’t know what type of art I’d be good at until one day I came up with an idea for a story. I wrote it down with some illustrations. It looked like a picture book. So, I sent photocopies of it to publishers. Having received favorable responses from many of them I started to visit their offices with my portfolio. Most of the editors and art directors I met liked my drawings and some even considered publishing my story, but in the end it didn’t happen. It was a difficult time economically and not easy for a newcomer to start a career.

I was thinking of giving it all up and going home when I met Klaus Flugge of Andersen Press. He gave me a text that had been sent to him recently. I wouldn’t have been doing what I am doing now without Klaus giving me a big chance with such a brilliant text. Angry Arthur was a tremendous inspiration for me and I learned so much about picture books by illustrating it. I still think it is one of the best texts ever written for a picture book. It was so lucky for me to have met Klaus and to be able to illustrate the book.

While I was working on The Smile Shop the UK decided to leave the EU. It surprised me and I thought it was a big mistake even though I no longer lived there. I felt as if the London I had known was becoming a thing of the past.

Ever since I left London I’ve wanted to do a “London Book”. A book that captures the city’s sounds, noises, smells, air, streets, buildings and above all people. London is probably one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world. I always felt at home in this city where people of all colors and languages lived. The Smile Shop is my tribute to the city that nurtured me as an artist.

Some people who read The Smile Shop told me it was a book about kindness. I didn’t particularly mean to write the story in that light. The idea started with word play, and I like the title being slightly self-contradictory because a smile cannot be sold or bought. A smile is entirely free: exchangeable and sharable. It is mutual and often spontaneous. It is a show of good will and kindness.

We have both positive and negative sides in us. Kindness is probably the best asset that we have. I have had my share of difficulties in the past. How have I come through them? There were times when situations could have turned out quite dire without the kind intervention of friends.

So, I agree, kindness make a difference. We cannot live without it. Just like a smile!

Satoshi Kitamura

Satoshi Kitamura is an award-winning children’s picture book author and illustrator. As a child, he drew constantly and devoured comics. A self-taught artist, his career began in advertising and magazines before he moved to London, where he debuted as a picture book illustrator with Hiawyn Oram’s Angry Arthur, a 1983 Mother Goose Award-winner for the Most Exciting Newcomer to British Illustration. Since then, he has illustrated over twenty of his own books, plus collaborated on many others.


  • This giveaway is for a copy of The Smile Shop. Many thanks to Peachtree for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of of The Smile Shop, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, May 28th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name Stacey will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, June 4th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
    • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.
  • If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – KITAMURA. Please respond to Stacey’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

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Congratulations to Britt whose commenter number was selected for this giveaway.

16 thoughts on “The Smile Shop: A Tribute to Language and London

  1. I love the book and the concepts and ideas you have shared in writing about how it came to be. I also love the word for smile in Spanish. I used to live in London many years ago, so I feel it would bring back many memories! Thanks for sharing your journey in writing it.


  2. I have a student who was born in London; he will LOVE this book! Can’t wait to get and read it with him. Thank you for sharing!!!!


  3. I love love love this book. And, I love even more (grammar?!?) the story of how it came to be. Thank you for sharing.


  4. I so love the city of London! Combine the city with smiles and kindness and we’ve got a winner. Can’t wait to get a copy of this book!


  5. Aahh, sonrisa! I love to see my toddler’s face light up when I go to take a picture of him and exclaim, “SONRISA, papito!” Beautiful post. I love the play on words 🙂


  6. Love reading about the concept development behind “The Smile Shop.” Love how this happy play on words ended up as an icon of kindness!


  7. This past Sunday my daughter visited with her 10 week old baby who would not stop crying! I held him and sang softly and surprisingly, he smiled! It changed the attitude and mood of everyone in the room! A smile can change how you feel in the moment and your connection to others. A smile is contagious! I loved Satoshi Kitamura‘s blog that is so beautifully written and exemplifies how his journey between the two cities he loves inspires his writing and illustrations!


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