As a 9-12 year old, I couldn’t read enough historical fiction set during World War II. I’m not sure what it was about that era, or if maybe there was just a ton of historical fiction output during my formative years set during WWII, but it became a time period that fascinated me, as heartbreaking and challenging as it must have been for so many at the time. Publishing moves through cycles and it seems that historical fiction is not so trendy these days, as I feel like I see fewer and fewer historical fiction books in the New Books section at the bookstore. It’s a shame because these books are so necessary if we wish to learn from history. They help us better understand where we came from, and how those events have shaped today.
Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban begins with a girl and her dog Yujiin and her grandfather. Born on Bainbridge Island off the coast of Washington state, Manami knows only her peaceful, rural, seaside home, where she lives with her parents and grandfather, her two older siblings off to college in the Midwest. But everything changes one day at school. Whispered rumors. And returning home to learn from her parents, with little explanation, that she and her family have no choice but to leave. Along with all of the other Japanese-Americans, they are sent to the mainland and then further inland, to an internment camp, where they are housed in barracks and regarded with suspicion. In the process, Manami is forcibly parted with Yujiin, who she was supposed to leave behind, but who she sneaks along for the journey. The other parting is Manami’s choice. In the moment and the days that follow, she loses her voice.
Sepahban’s spare, poetic, and economical prose is perfectly suited to this story and this age group. Chapter breaks mark each month as time marches on in the internment camp, where everything is parched and Manami, quieted. Her heartbreak over the loss of Yujiin is palpable, and will move many readers, child and adult alike, but its her eventual recovery that got the tears to spill over for me.
Paper Wishes couldn’t be more timely or necessary, with a current presidential candidate boasting an unforgivable and deep misunderstanding of Executive Order 9066. My nephew, himself Japanese-American and close in age to Manami, was questioning me the other day about good guys and bad guys, asking for confirmation that “bad guys” aren’t real . . . they’re just in the movies. I didn’t know how to answer — the question was so big and I’m not his parent — but I told him, “real bad guys usually don’t look like the ones in the movies.”
Already the recipient of three starred reviews, Paper Wishes has been lauded with so much love, but I have to give it a little more. You can’t say this about every book, and of course, it depends a bit on the reader, but this book is *important*. I can’t think of a better choice for classroom read-alouds. Many, many children will learn and experience so much from this book, without ever feeling like they are being taught.
Paper Wishes is out today from FSG and available wherever books are sold.