A Place to Belong
New York London Toronto Sydney New Delhi
Review: Elizabeth Jaeger
Genre: Middle Grade
Review of A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata
When I read children’s literature, I do my best to adjust my mindset so that I can appreciate the work as a child might. This isn’t always easy, after all, I am an adult and I have been for way too long. Now that my son reads middle grade literature it is a little easier. We talk about books often, and so I know what catches and holds his attention and what does not. When I read, my thought process is no longer broad: would kids enjoy this? It is far more specific: Would my son enjoy this? While not all kids are the same, I think in trying to put myself in his head, I probably get a better understanding of how appealing the book might be to a younger audience.
However, sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I can’t shut off my teacher brain. It’s the teacher in me that connects to the story, and I wish I had a class in front of me because the lesson plans are zipping around in my head. I know the book I’m reading would be a fantastic resource. A fabulous way to create an entire social studies unit. A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata is such a book.
The novel opens with Hanako, her younger brother Akira, and their parents on ship heading to Japan. The family has spent the last several years in an internment camp, and now that World War II has ended, the United States Government has pressured Hanako’s parents to surrender their American citizenship. They are returning — brokenhearted and in despair — to their homeland. Before the war, Hanako’s parents ran a successful restaurant in America. Memories of this time return to Hanako throughout the story, and she struggles to reconcile the past with the present. Her parents had spent years investing in her future, a future no longer possible for her in Japan.
After docking, the family travels by train to Hiroshima which has been destroyed by an atomic bomb. Poverty, homelessness, and hunger haunt the streets. People are disfigured and badly scarred. Back home, America imprisoned her Japanese-American citizens. But the devastation America caused in Japan is catastrophic.
From Hiroshima, the family travels to a small village where Hanako’s paternal grandparents live and work as tenant farmers. Hanako and Akira meet their grandparents for the first time. They are poor. They have little food to share and their house is small, but there is no shortage of love. Hanako’s grandparents are excited to finally see their grandchildren, but they wish their circumstances were better. They wish they could provide more food, a more favorable future.
Adjusting to life in Japan is not easy. Hanako does not want to go to school where she will stand out. Her hair is too long, and it signals to her peers that she once lived in America. While she can speak Japanese, her reading and writing skills are poor. But she has always been a good student, and despite the difficulty now, she applies herself and works hard.
Hanako’s father finds work fairly easily. Being able to speak English is a valuable skill in Japan which is currently occupied by the United States. But now that he is settled he begins to have second thoughts. Did he make a mistake surrendering his citizenship? He decides that he has, and finds a lawyer who intends to sue the United States Government on behalf of the displaced Japanese families.
Hanako is torn. She wishes to return to America, the country in which she was born. The country in which she probably has the better future. But leaving means saying good-bye to the grandparents she has come to love, and she knows that in leaving them, she will be sad.
The relationship between Hanako and her grandparents is one that many children will be able to relate to. Reading it made me miss my own grandparents. Hanako’s inner conflict is also expressed very well, and as a reader, I could easily tap into her fears and doubts
While I enjoyed A Place to Belong very much, I am aware that I read it through teacher eyes. I see incredible potential for classrooms. Teachers can use this book for lessons centering on history, racism in America, and social justice. There is plenty of opportunity for students to connect the novel to current events. As for middle grade students, I think they would be able to appreciate the story and comprehend it on deeper level if read with an adult. It is not a difficult story to read, but the reading will be a richer experience if the students have a deeper understanding of the history surrounding World War II.