Beginner’s Pencils, East and West

I picked up this Staedtler Triplus Jumbo beginner’s pencil at the neighborhood stationer’s today while out on a walk. Yellow is a classic color for pencils, but this bright, shiny canary yellow seems particularly perfect for a child’s first day of school.

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It’s only recently that I realized there was a particular reason I was so attracted to these chubby jumbo pencils. You see, they were never available to us when we were young, and they still aren’t for most children in Korea – Asian companies seem to have a different definition of “beginner’s pencils” compared to their counterparts in the West.

In Korea (and as far as I remember, in Japan as well) kiddie pencils are available in slightly darker grades (B or 2B, although HB is of course standard) and carry appealing shades of color or very commonly manga characters, but are rarely made in larger dimensions. In contrast, Western brands have long produced jumbo pencils for smaller hands and fingers (I’m not familiar with the history of school pencils, but given the existence of vintage pencils such as the Dixon Laddie, it doesn’t seem like a very recent phenomenon).

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The reason behind this peculiar phenomenon, I suppose, is that children in Asia learn to use chopsticks long before they hold their first pencil, and so are expected to have already acquired a set of basic fine motor skills that will enable them to handle regular-sized hexagonal pencils without any difficulty. Therefore pencil companies do not feel any particular obligation to accomodate their smaller physique. Another point to consider is that the “correct” way to hold a pencil is much more strictly enforced in a culture that values the act of writing almost as a moral act: and therefore, what the Western triangular jumbo pencil is intended to do, i.e. gently nudge the child’s fingers into the correct position, Asian parents and teachers take it upon themselves to do in a much more aggressive manner, nagging and scolding. (They even try to correct left-handedness.) In this kind of situation, it may prove more efficient and time-saving to have children start on regular-sized pencils right away, rather than have them switch sizes halfway and start all over again.

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And God help you if your fingers aren’t in this standard position by first grade!

All this has an interesting effect on Asian consumers like me I think: the wide-grip jumbo pencil appeals on an aesthetic level, because its design is so unfamiliar. (For the same reason I also love the Stabilo Woody pencils, although I don’t have any use for them.) Interestingly, jumbo colored pencils are relatively common compared to their graphite cousins, but I’m not sure if that is because children use them earlier than regular pencils, or if it’s just because of the extensive retail network that companies like Faber-Castell and Staedtler have.

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4 thoughts on “Beginner’s Pencils, East and West

  1. Thank you for this post and the many exciting details! I didn’t know that there is an Indonesian made Staedtler pencil. By the way, the pencil case behind this pencil is beautiful! Your comparison between Western and Asian pencils for beginners is illuminating, especially the cultural aspects. – Compared to the pencils in your photos even the most colourful pencils from German manufacturers look pretty boring. May I ask what the right ones in the second photos (with “Kimonogatari” in the box) are? Their barrel design is striking.

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    1. Hi Gunther, yes it was the first time I had seen one too! I know that some Faber-Castell pencils marketed in Korea are made in Indonesia. They are said to write darker than the German ones, but this happens to be my first Indonesian pencil so I wouldn’t know ;)

      Re the pouch: it is handmade (I bought it at the annual Penhood pen show several years ago). There has been for the past few years a veritable explosion of interest in handicraft, and many people have taken up quilting or leatherworking. And happily many of them make accessories for pens, such as pouches, pen rests and notebook covers – I will show you some of these in my next post.

      Re Ki-monogatari (木物語): this is the eco-brand from Tombow and the same line that your graphite-and-vermilion pencil comes from. So I would assume that the barrel is made of leftover wood slats or some such eco-friendly material. I liked the lead of the LV-KEV a lot, but this particular product is a bit disappointing. The lead is quite coarse.

      BTW ippo! is a relatively new line from Tombow geared towards children first starting school – as you may already know, you seem to know everything :) Here is the full lineup. (“ippo” 一歩 literally means “one step”, or “first step” in this context).

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  2. “…a culture that values the act of writing almost as a moral act” — wonderful stuff Sola!

    I’m sure you’ve nailed it, i.e. why Japanese schoolkids don’t use chubby Western style beginner’s pencils. If I had to guess, though, I’d say fat colored pencils with fat cores are used because of the nature of scribbling and coloring which is to lay down lots of color over large areas. Similarly, the preference for slightly softer and darker graphite may have to do with the intricate line variation of Japanese charater formation, an expressiveness that might be harder to achieve with an HB pencil. I honestly don’t remember, but as a kindergartener and first-grader in the Sixties I’m pretty sure I used Laddies or the like here in the States.

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    1. You are right. I was also thinking of those conical pieces of crayon made for baby fists, which are easier to grip AND lay down lots of color. What you say about Japanese graphite characteristics make sense too, because I notice that the Hi-Uni Penmanship Pencil in 4B, for instance, does produce wonderful dark/light variations depending on the pressure. However, there are other factors to consider – in Japanese (and Korean and Chinese too) there are more pen lifts and more strokes crowding in a given area, and here the softer and darker formula may actually be a disadvantage. So personally I feel that the reason may be more complex :)

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