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April 11, 2006 > War - a child's view

War - a child's view

by Joyce Peters and Dominique Hutches

Our parent's generation witnessed terrible world events - economic depression, war, genocide, injustice, and much more. They were young then and this was their world. They would work hard to give us a better life. Whether they were being protective of their children or didn't want to dwell on bitter memories, they often did not speak of the past. As their generation fades, it is time to get personal with history.

History as taught in textbooks barely touches on the human toll and certainly cannot show impacts on individuals. Textbooks are a starting point in learning about events but are often colorless, lacking humanity. Today, with a multimedia approach to teaching history, we can personalize the experiences of the 30s and 40s by publishing stories and recording survivors.

These children's books show us World War II from a child's point of view with all its vulnerability and wonder. It reminds us that real people like our parents and the parents of other baby boomers were young during those turbulent times.

"Hana's Suitcase: A True Story" by Karen Levine, Albert Whitman non-fiction hardback, $15.95 (2003)

In 2000 when Miss Fumiko Ishioka in Tokyo wanted to establish a small museum to teach Japanese children about the Holocaust, she wrote to museums in Germany asking for help. A few artifacts were sent to her, including an intriguing suitcase marked "Hana Brady, May 16, 1931, Waisenkind." Waisenkind is the German word for orphan.
The children who see the suitcase want to know more about its owner. Thus, Miss Fumiko and her students begin their quest for Hana Brady. What happened to her during the war 60 years before? Intertwined between the story of their efforts is the story of Hana herself, a young Czechoslovakian girl who loves to ski, has a brother named George, and a heart-breaking smile. They discover wonderful pictures, which makes the lives of these two children even more real, more powerful.

Levine skillfully weaves the two stories together, interspersing Miss Fumiko's determination to find Hana with the little girl's determination to be brave in the face of overwhelming events. While Hana's story has a sad ending, the overall voice of this book is a hopeful one. Miss Fumiko and her students manage to locate Hana's brother George who is still living. Together with him they create a legacy, one that touches hearts worldwide, and one that ensures that Hana Brady will never be forgotten. A great book to teach and encourage discussion about one of the most devastating events in our history. Recommended for 5th to 7th grade.

"This is My Country Too - Growing Up in a Japanese-American Internment Camp" by local author Jane Schuman Lester, Publish America paperback, $12.95 (2006)

Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, December 6, 1941. America at War....Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt in February 1942, gives the military the authority to relocate potential threats to national security. In 1943, Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps far away from their homes. These American citizens, many of whom had never been to Japan and could not speak Japanese, were treated like enemy agents.

Ten year old Lisa Yoshida and her family are escorted from California to Jerome, Arkansas by train with armed soldiers pointing guns at them. Most of the people in Arkansas had never seen a Japanese person before except as caricatures in a Dick Tracy's comic. Internees are housed in shacks with no heat, running water or interior walls. Everyone feels surrounded by danger from their fellow Americans.

This fictionalized account of one family captures the fear and shame of being shunned. It is more poignant when seen through the eyes of young children. Lisa is at that age when she really wants to belong, to be like everyone else - have blond hair, attend church, and celebrate holidays. She realizes that now, to friends and strangers alike, she is different. Her life has been turned upside down by events overseas. She is just as scared as her parents. Like them, she puts up a strong front; neither lets on how confused and hurt they are.

After one year in Jerome, Lisa and her family are allowed to leave the camp, although they are not allowed to return to the west coast. The book describes only one year spent turning a swampy camp into a home, but the reader knows it will take a lifetime for Lisa to wonder why part of her heart is still there.

The author wrote this book for 8 to 12 year olds even though most children this age have not been taught World War II history. This is an opportunity to enlist grandparents for background help.

Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, Laurel Leaf paperback, $6.50 (1973)

Until a younger family member asked her about the internment years, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston never discussed her experiences at Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp located in the desert 225 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Once these repressed memories began to unfold, the outpouring of recollections and emotions led to this powerful, honest memoir.

The primitive conditions and emotional stress causes Jeanne's family to fall apart. Her father, a proud fisherman, will never recover fully. Papa had been held at Fort Lincoln Detention camp where he was accused of disloyalty and spying. After rejoining his family in Manzanar, he becomes violent and drinks heavily. Once a close knit family unit, each member now is just trying to survive. Instead of quiet meals together, there are mess halls. There is no privacy - poor Mama is mortified by the non-partitioned camp toilets.

Manzanar reads like a dream world - as if someone closed the door on this world and has just opened it again. The writer relates details vividly but must be wondering at the same time if this chapter of her life really happened. After all, she was only seven when she entered the camp. Descriptions of political arguments of residents - to enlist or not, to sign the loyalty oath or not, rules needed - and their attempts at normalcy amidst this lunacy is particularly heart wrenching.

The end of the war and return home brings a wary re-entry into America, always feeling like a foreigner. Leaving a prison, even a hated one, is scary. There will be the kindness and generosity of strangers, but will there still be hate? Although fearful of overt racism, it is the subtle prejudice of daily life that stings. The reader will really feel Jeanne's struggle to belong - to be both Japanese and American.

Recommended for junior high school and up.

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