We Are Not Free by Traci Chee (9780358131434)
Brace yourself for this teen novel that brings you along with fourteen teens who are taken into the Japanese detention camps in the United States during World War II. The teenagers have all grown up together in Japantown in San Francisco. But when Pearl Harbor is bombed, their lives are destroyed when their families are relocated to the detention camps. Told in each of their voices, the story revolves around their daily lives in the camp, the intolerable racism and injustice that they face, and how they navigate still being Americans.
Chee moves from her successful fantasy trilogy to this incredibly impactful story of a group of friends who are taken from their lives. Her writing is exceptional, moving from straightforward storytelling to passages that sing with poetic touches to direct verse. All of it screams of the injustice, demanding that people see what actually happened in the camps and the impossible decisions faced by the Japanese Americans who were held there. She also very successfully moves to the battlefields of World War II, breaking lives and hearts.
Fourteen voices are a lot to manage as an author, but Chee does it with such a deep understanding of each character that readers can simply allow the characters to flow around them at first. By the end of the book, readers will have connected with each of the characters both from their own perspectives and from the adjoining stories of the other characters that include them as well. It is deftly done, capturing readers into this powerful story and making it impossible to look away or deny.
Incredibly eloquent and compelling, this historical fiction for teens is one that can’t be missed. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by HMH Books for Young Readers.
A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata, illustrated by Julia Kuo (9781481446648)
Award-winning author Kadohata tells the story of a Japanese-American family forced to return to Japan after World War II because of their Japanese ancestry. After spending years in an internment camp in the United States, twelve-year-old Hanako and her family move to Japan to live with her paternal grandparents. They travel by ship first and then train until they reach the decimated city of Hiroshima, where her grandparents’ farm lies outside. All of Japan is poor and hungry, with black markets and children begging on the streets. Hanako meets her grandparents for the first time, discovering that her grandfather is very like her little brother who is five years old. Her grandmother is stooped over from the hard work in the fields. Hanako must face learning a new language, attending a new school in a different country, and trying to find a way forward for her entire family. It’s a lot of pressure, but Hanako learns steadily to adjust and change.
Kadohata’s novel for children tells the untold story of Japanese Americans forced to repatriate to their country of origin and renounce their American citizenship. It also gives an unflinching look at the aftermath of World War II in Japan, particularly with its setting near Hiroshima. That dark setting is juxtaposed against the warmth and beauty of discovering loving grandparents and building a new relationship. Yet there is a constant sense of loss in the book and a teetering feeling that things may suddenly change at any moment.
As always, Kadohata’s prose is beautiful. She vividly depicts Japanese life during the 1940’s and the unending work of being a tenant farmer. In the midst of all of the sorrow, loss and confusion, she places a loving family who are willing to sacrifice for one another and for brighter futures for the next generation. Through this family, there is intense hope broadcast on the page.
An important and vital book about the horrors of war and its aftermath on individual families. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.
Ojiichan’s Gift by Chieri Uegaki, illustrated by Genevieve Simms (9781771389631)
When Mayumi was born, her grandfather who lived in Japan built her a garden. It was a garden without tulips or flowers. Instead it was a garden of stones of all sizes. Around the edge, the garden had bushes and trees as well as a space for Mayumi to have a meal with her grandfather. As Mayumi grew up, she learned more and more about taking care of her garden alongside her grandfather. But then one summer, her grandfather could not care for his home or the garden anymore. When they arrived, the house was dusty and the garden was overgrown. Her grandfather had to use a wheelchair now. Mayumi is very angry and takes her anger out on the rocks of the garden, trying to topple the largest over. When she is unable to tip it over, she kicks the smaller rocks around. As her anger subsides, she rakes the garden back into order again and has an inspiration of what she can do to help both herself and her grandfather with this transition.
Uegaki was inspired to write this book by her own father who was a traditional Japanese landscaper and gardener. She captures with nicely chosen details the essence of a Japanese rock garden with its order, natural elements and upkeep. She also shows how a garden can create connections between in a long-distance relationship with a grandparent. She manages to have a strong point of view without being didactic at all, instead allowing the reader and Mayumi to experience the results of the garden without extra commentary.
The illustrations by Simms add to the understanding of the Japanese garden. Done in beautiful details, they offer images of the rocks, the moss, the gravel, and all of the elements. Using different perspectives for her images, she shows views from alongside the garden as well as from above. The same is true of the grandfather’s house as views change from outside looking in to the reverse.
A charming look at the connections between grandfather and granddaughter built through a garden. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Kids Can Press.
Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind by Cynthia Grady, illustrated by Amiko Hirao (9781580896887)
This nonfiction picture book tells the true story of a librarian who stayed in touch with the children she served even after they were moved forcibly away. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were sent to prison camps. As a librarian in San Diego, Clara Breed served many children of Japanese descent. Before the children left, she gave them books and postcards to correspond with her. While they were gone, she continued to send them small things, even visiting once and delivering boxes of books. The children wrote to her during the three years they were gone as she offered them a way to stay connected to the outside world.
This book shows the Japanese internment in a way that children will understand. The letters shared in the book are excerpts from actual children’s letters written to Miss Breed during this time. They reflect the different ages of the children, their focus on everyday moments and their strong connection to books and their librarian. It is a book that shows how importance and life changing kindness is.
The illustrations are done in pencil on paper and have a softness and glow to them. They do not shrink from showing the desolation of the internment camps and the sorrow and fear of those being placed in them.
A very timely nonfiction book that will show young readers a horrific point in American history and how just one person can make a difference. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Charlesbridge and Edelweiss.
Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman (9781481487726)
Kiko struggles to find her own voice in many ways. She can’t seem to be herself in crowds, even small ones. She certainly can’t tell her mother what she actually thinks, particularly when her mother lets her uncle return to their home after Kiko had accused him of molesting her as a child. It is only in her art that Kiko tells her own story and speaks the truth. She plans to finally get away from her mother by attending art school in New York City. When she doesn’t get in, Kiko is trapped in a life of seeing her molester in her home, being with her horrible mother, and seeing her best friend head off to school. That is when a childhood friend comes back into her life and she begins to see what a future filled with art and honesty looks like.
I read only the first few lines of this debut book and realized that I had tumbled into the world created by a very talented storyteller. It is a world of abusive mothers, where the abuse is emotional rather than physical. Bowman draws the abuse clearly and subtly, allowing readers to realize the depths of the damage along with Kiko herself as her mother not only fails to protect her but also hurts her directly. It is a world of art, where art pieces end each chapter, the image capturing the emotions that Kiko was just feeling with an accuracy that lets you see it before your eyes.
This is a book that explores being different, particularly Kiko, who is half Japanese and half Caucasian, looking different than her blonde mother. Her mother has specific cruelties related to Kiko’s appearance that are particularly awful. As Kiko begins to think for herself, readers will be able to start breathing along with her and see just how strong Kiko is as a young woman on her own.
A book that celebrates individuality, art and survival, this novel is fresh and deeply moving. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
ARC provided by Simon & Schuster.
Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban
Manami loves her home on Bainbridge Island where she can walk with her grandfather and his dog on the beach. Everything changes when Pearl Harbor is bombed in 1941. Manami and her family along with the other Japanese Americans are gathered up and forced to move to internment camps far from the sea. Manami’s grandfather has arranged for someone to care for his dog, but Manami cannot bear to leave him behind so she hides him in her coat. But she is not allowed to bring the dog with them. Heartbroken, when they reach the camp, Manami stops speaking entirely, unable to force words past her dusty throat. Manami keeps hoping that their dog will find them, sending pictures on the wind to him.
Told in spare and elegant prose, Sephaban captures the devastating impact of World War II policies on Japanese Americans. Losing all of their property and belongings except what they can fit into one suitcase each, the families work to put together a semblance of a life for themselves and their children. Sepahban sets this story in a prison camp that had a riot break out and one can feel the tension building. This novel manages to show the impact of loss of civil rights and also be a voice for moving forward to embracing diversity and differences.
Manami is an amazing character. Her pain is palpable on the page, her voice buried under guilt and compounded by their internment in the camp. Everything changes for her in one moment, taken from the place she loves, removed from the life she has been living. Manami has to find a way to make a new life, but it is devastating for her as she is unable to forgive herself for what she has done.
Beautiful writing, a complex heroine and a powerful story make this short historical novel worth reading and sharing. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Edelweiss.
The Inker’s Shadow by Allen Say
Released September 29, 2015.
This companion book to the author’s Drawing from Memory continues the story of Say’s life. In this book, Say arrives in the United States as a teenager. His father had arranged for him to attend a military school where he would work to earn his keep. He was expected to learn English and prove that be could be a success. But Say was the only Japanese student at the school and soon racism had become an issue. His father helped kick him out of school and sent him on his way. Say managed to find a safe place to live as well as a school that would let him graduate along with his peers rather than moving him back to classes with much younger students. Say continued to work on his art in the United States and at this new school he gained the attention of several important people who arranged for him to attend art classes and art school at no charge.
This autobiographical picture book is an inspiring story of a teen given up by his father who discovers a way forward towards his dream. Say does not linger on the more painful moments in his story, allowing them to speak for themselves since they are profoundly saddening. His honesty in this book is captivating and allows readers to deeply relate to his story.
The Caldecott medalist paints landscapes from his past as well as providing multiple images of people he held dear. There are often both photographs and renderings of people in line drawings and full paintings. One gets to witness from this the skill of Say’s art as he perfectly captures these beloved people from his past.
A coming-of-age story that is bittersweet and imbued with hope for the future. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Scholastic and Edelweiss.
The Thing about Luck by Cynthia Kadohata
Summer Miyamoto is positive that her family is completely out of luck. Nothing is going right for them at all. Her parents had to return to Japan because of a family emergency, leaving her behind with her grandparents and little brother, Jaz. Now the four of them are heading out to do harvest season for the first time without her parents. Summer and Jaz have to get all of their homework assignments, so they really don’t have the time off. Summer is also expected to help her grandmother cook for the others working on the harvest, so she is very busy. But she isn’t so busy that she doesn’t notice the very cute son of the people they work for or the problems that her brother has making friends. She is also worried about her grandparents from the pain in her grandmother’s back that incapacitates her at times to the exhaustion that her grandfather seems to be suffering from. All of this weighs on Summer who just wants the bad luck to end but it may take Summer being something her grandmother would not approve of to save the family in the end.
Kadohata has created a very compelling story of a family who travels the United States harvesting wheat with giant combines. She offers just enough details about the machinery and the process for readers to understand it which helps make the work much more understandable. But this book is far more about this particular family and its dynamics. The grandparents offer a unique mix of sage advice and confusing world views. Jaz, the younger brother, is a great example of a very smart child who has almost no social skills. All of these characters are written as complete people, not ever stereotypical.
Summer herself is equally well drawn. She is at a confusing time in life in general, being a pre-teen who is starting to notice boys. That is complicated by her grandmother’s old-fashioned take on boys and girls as well as her own responsibility for her family that puts her in situations that require her to be more adult and less child.
A beautiful and intense look at a Japanese-American family struggling with an interesting lifestyle and just surviving a year of bad luck. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Take What You Can Carry by Kevin C. Pyle
This graphic novel explores connections between generations and across races, in an innovative way. It is the story of two teenage boys. One is a Japanese American who is sent to the internment camps during World War II. His part of the story shows the displacement of his family, the loss of their rights, and the realities of the camps. In alternating chapters, we also get the modern story of a teenage boy who moves to a new community and gets in with the wrong group of boys. Soon he is robbing stores and eventually ends up in real trouble. The man whose store he robs was the Japanese teen, who also resorted to stealing in the camps.
At first, readers are not sure how the two stories will ever come together into one, or if they ever will. They seem so remote and separate from one another. Then when they do, there is a great satisfaction is realizing why the modern boy is given a chance to remedy what he has done. It is a story that deals with two very personal stories, but that also has a more universal message about displacement, theft and redemption. Both of the teen boys find ways to make things right in their lives, to accept their conditions, to rise above.
Pyle’s two stories are shown in different color palettes as you can see from the cover. The sepia tones work well for the historical story, also emphasizing the wasteland of the internment camps. The blues of the modern story give it a cool feeling that suits a story where a boy is not making the right choices and where his world is devoid of warmth.
This intriguing graphic novel is a compelling read that will show young readers not only about history but also about themselves and their own choices. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt.