One of the first books I remember reading is ‘Harold and the Purple Crayon’ by Crockett Johnson, about a boy whose crayon drawings come to life. ‘The Magic Chalk’ plays with this idea from the perspective of a penniless artist, whose food comes from sieving for rice grains from a restaurant waste pipe. When he draws a meal on his bedroom wall with a newly found piece of chalk, the food becomes real, and immediately falls and splashes over the floor. It’s only when he draws a table beneath the food that he’s able to eat it, though when the daylight comes he’s as hungry as ever.

His solution: to board up all the windows so that not  a trace of daylight can enter, so his chalk creations can last all day. So he lives like a king for the next few weeks, drawing whatever delicacy he wants, when he starts thinking about drawing a window. But he doesn’t just want to scribble a landscape; if he draws it, it will become real, and drawing a landscape makes him feel too responsible for all those newly created lives he’d make.

The story’s only half over at this point, and Kobe explores the concept down a number of thoughtful avenues. And the story appears to be occasionally assigned as a school text, so if you want critical commentary there are essays (and attempts to plagiarise them) online.

The Magic Chalk by Abe Kobo, translated by Alison Kibrick

Availability: Print only

Word count: 4,500

First published: 1950 or 1951

Where to find it: Asia Magazine, 1982

The Showa Anthology: Modern Japanese Short Stories, edited by Van C. Gessel & Tomone Matsumoto, 1993, Kodansha

Other Voices, Other Vistas; Short Stories from Africa, China, India, Japan, and Latin America, edited by Barbara H. Solomon, 2002, Signet Classics

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