Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu were two American girls in California whose paths crossed during World War II. This book is a fictionalized account of the feelings behind the events in their lives. It’s a story of the exploration of identity in a society that imposes unjust restraints.
Aki’s and Sylvia’s experiences with racial discrimination were similar as two non-white American citizens. Aki and her family were forced to relocate to an internment camp in Poston, Arizona as a result of Executive Order 9066. Sylvia’s Mexican heritage precluded her from attending the all-white Westminster School in Orange County. (Sylvia’s father, Gonzalez Mendez, went on to win the lawsuit he launched against the Westminster School District of Orange County.) The girls met each other because when the Munemitsus were evacuated, it was the Mendez family who leased their asparagus farm. To be sure that American censors didn’t abscond with the rent money, Gonzalez Mendez refused to mail the payment. Instead, he made the 250 mile trip to Poston, Arizona to hand deliver it. It was on one of these trips that the girls became acquainted.
Winifred Conkling has fabricated an engaging story around the historical facts of these overlapping lives. The initial thread which unites them is Aki’s traditional Japanese doll that Sylvia adopts. It’s been left in the bedroom closet since it might be construed as un-American and it takes up too much space in the one suitcase Aki is allowed. The discovery of this doll, so unlike her Carmencita, and yet so similar, opens Sylvia’s eyes to what it might be like for Aki. While the girls’ italicized thought bubbles feel somewhat awkward at times, the questioning tone they establish feels authentic for children between 8 and 10 awakening to the world around them. The girls are trying to figure out who they are and how they should feel about themselves, and they are struggling to understand their parents’ calm resilience in the face of blatant inequity. For the girls, the patience required in the long wait for justice to be served does not come naturally.
Because this book successfully brings to life two individuals, I think it’s appropriate for children as young as fourth graders. The questioning of identity and the appraisals of inequity are in line with a typical fourth grader’s developmental stage. The alternating chapters for Sylvia and Aki present an accessible structure and the language is easy to follow. Most likely this is characterized as a Middle School book because the Japanese American internment camp experience is unfamiliar to many kids. In case it’s unfamiliar to teachers as well, there is an Epilogue putting the events in wider historical perspective with figures and dates. You may also want to check out resources on the Teaching for Change website: http://www.tfcbooks.org