Title: Somewhere Among
Author: Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu
Publisher: Athenium Books for Young Readers, 2016
Themes: Japanese/American, biculturism, 2001, new baby, 9/11, terrorism, bullying
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review
PREPARING MYSELF Not enough room for me to give Mom space, I crouch in my corner fold clothes for three seasons into my suitcase slide pencil case, supplies box, assignments, notebooks, and textbooks into my schoolbag and slip my NASA pen in my pocket. I do not want to go to stay with Obaachan, my Japanses grandmother, but it cannot be helped. Every August I pack my summer homework shorts shorts and swimsuit to fly to Northern California with Mom but this year I am packing on a school holiday the longest day of the year to go to western Tokyo.
Synopsis: Eleven-year-old Ema is an American-Japanese girl who speaks both languages and knows both cultures. In the past she has always spendt summers with her American grandparents, but not this year. Ema’s Mom is going through a difficult pregnancy and is forbidden from travelling, so the whole family must not only stay in japan but Ema and her Mom will stay with her dad’s Japanese parents, Obaachan and Jiichan, while Dad can join them for some weekends and holidays. Her Japanese grandparents are both pretty traditional in their bleiefs and superstitions, but their personalities couldn’t be more different. Jiichan, the grandad, is a sweethearted man who bends to everyone’s wills and needs, espcially his somwehat overbearing and grouchy wife, who defintiely runs this household. Ema struggles with her grandmother’s strictness at home and a bully and being different at school, where some place her firmly in the ‘foreigner’ category. Se misses her summers with her American grandparents and with all this starngeness is dearly awaiting the birth of the baby, which she hopes will be a sister.
Undercurrents of tension from the differences in temperaments and culture nonetheless invade Ema’s school and home life. But a status quo is somehow maintained at home, mainly to keep the stress down for Mom and baby’s sake. Just as the world is rocked on September 11th, 2001, so is the microworld of Ema’s home. Terror doesn’t know national boundaries and fear permeates Mom’s world with her parents so far away. Japan’s 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor is also approaching and many Japanese, including Ema’s grandparents fear for their nation as an ally, despite Japan’s promises to stay out of war. This trauma takes its toll on both the pregnancy and Jiichan’s health as too much TV news about the attacks and other sad national news is too much for this tender hearted and sensitive man.
Why I like this book:
Somewhere Among is a debut middle grade novel in verse. While the novel is pitched as a story that gently explores the 9/11 attacks from afar on one family, truly this was not my experience of this story. Above all offers readers a glimpse of daily life in early 21st century Tokyo in one family. Japanese culture, social expectations, superstitions, beliefs, school life, bullying are all seen through the eyes of a bicultural eleven-year old, thus both an insider and an outsider. While the external events of 9/11 impact the family’s health and are an external trigger, the real transformation is in the interelationships among the family as they pull together for the sake of the new baby and Jiichan. While the transformation begins with Ema herself as she works through her own attitudes towards her grandma, her bully, her homesickness, her hopes for a sister, her otherliness, her concerns for her Grandpa Bob and Nana.
The similarties and differences between Ema’s life in Japan and those of any eleven-yea old in the US or anotehr western nation are woven seamlessly together to make this a very accesible diverse read for any middle graders. Every child will relate to facing bullies because you are a little different resenting grandparent and parental interference, resenting chores. I believe they will sympathize with how much stricter this Japanese home seems and be intrigued by the various social customs, such as taking off shoes and facing the toes to the door, or sleeping on foutons, which have to be stowed away during the day, to the religious festivals, ceremonies and traditions the narrator describes such as lighting incense and saying prayers at the family altar.
The novel is written in first person in stunninginly lyrical verse, so while it looks a very long read at 441 pages, the large amount of white space plus the beauty of the language make it an easy but deeply immersive read. I think this would make a great introduction to novels in verse for middle schoolers. While the pace is slow and the terrorist attacks arrive much later than I was expecting in the book (about half way through), the universal fears of national safety whether in retrospect looking back at WW11, or later in 2001, deftly mirror the personal fears of all the individuals in the story trying to look out for their loved ones, as we all do.
One of the greatest strengths in the novel for me lies in Ema herself ultimately being the conduit of peace to herself and between her family members as the arrival of a new sister and healing of Jiichan remind everyone of the importance of keeping those connections unbroken and nurtured. This reads almost like a year in the lif of diary and is the language made me pause many times in its poetic simplicity. It is a novel frull of heart, insight and cultural nuances that draw the reader into the heart of this bicultural family. Sadly last weekend’s tragic shootings in Orlando remind us how important these stories are to build empathy and inclusiveness in our young people.
Let me end by sharing a favorite quote:
LIKE THE FLOW OF THE RIVER
The molasses time of day
pedal the wind at my feet
…………………… a constellation, dark and light, dull and sparkling deep and shallow,
Glide past me—
The river’s komono
of autumn amber sun
- On her blog, the author has several posts about her debut novel and Japan/US.
- Interview with Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu
- I’d recommend this as a great MG group read.
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