Regular readers of this blog know that for the past several months, I’ve focused on picture books about refugees, migrants and areas affected by immigration bans – stories set in those regions and/or by authors and illustrators hailing from those regions. Today’s choice may seem at first blush to be a deviation from this focus. I’d argue, though, that the themes in today’s Perfect Picture Book, in particular forced relocation and finding hope through art, are illuminating to those trying to understand, convey to children or write about these difficult current issues. It’s also a lovely book about a difficult topic rarely addressed in picture books.
Title: A Place Where Sunflowers Grow
Written By: Amy Lee-Tai
Illustrated By: Felicia Hoshino
Japanese Translation By: Marc Akio Lee
Publisher/date: Children’s Book Press (an imprint of Lee & Low Books)/2006
Suitable for Ages: 7-10
Themes/Topics: Japanese internment; World War II; historical fiction; relocation; bilingual; art; #WNDB
Mari stared at the ground. It had only been a week since she and her mother had planted a handful of sunflower seeds outside their new home. Mari asked Mama, “Will these flowers grow as tall and strong and beautiful as the ones in our old backyard?”
Brief Synopsis: When Mari, a young Japanese-American girl, and her family are relocated to an internment camp during World War II, art and gardening help Mari adjust to the unfamiliar and harsh conditions.
Links to Resources:
- For background about the Japanese internment, see Lee-Tai’s Introduction about the experiences of her mother and grandparents at the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah;
- See the comprehensive Teacher’s Guide;
- The Topaz Museum opened last month and displays examples of artwork from the Center on its site. Lee-Tan attended the opening and blogged about it here.
Why I Like this Book:
This is the first picture book I’ve read about the experiences of Japanese-American children in the internment centers. Although I knew that the relocations and life in the camps were difficult, I had no idea of the efforts of Japanese-American artists to continue creating and sharing art with fellow internees, including the children. And although the internment is a difficult topic to explore with children, I love the resilience and hopefulness that are evident in this story.
The text is in English and Japanese, a fitting tribute to those Japanese-Americans whose first language was Japanese. Hoshino studied the artworks of Lee-Tai’s grandmother, Hisako Hibi, and she based some of her watercolor, ink, tissue paper and acrylic illustrations on Hibi’s work.
A Note about Craft:
At first blush, the title, A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, may seem a bit misplaced: this picture book is about Japanese internment during World War II, not gardening. But by utilizing this natural, floral motif, Lee-Tai enables the reader to hope, like Mari, that sunflowers, like those that grew in the backyard she misses, will bloom in the desert and peace will return to the world.
A Place Where Sunflowers Grow is a work of fiction, but it is based on the experiences of Lee-Tai’s mother and family during World War II. Both of Lee-Tai’s grandparents were artists and produced artwork while at the Center. Her grandfather ran the Topaz art school for part of the war, and her mother and uncle attended art classes there. With these many experiences to draw upon, why did Lee-Tai choose to write a work of historical fiction? And, for writers, why may we make the same choice? In an interview, Lee-Tai stated,
By creating a character that readers might relate to or feel empathy for, I hope this book will plant some seeds in readers: to steer clear of racial and ethnic targeting in their individual interactions with others, and to work towards a world that will not commit other atrocities targeting entire races or ethnicities.
A Place Where Sunflowers Grow won the 2007 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for younger children.
Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list provides reviews of picture books by topic. While Susanna is taking a break for the summer, you can still check out the other great picture books featured there!