Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

Paper Wishes is a story for younger children about the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II and how one young girl's life is forever changed.

Ten-year-old Manami Tanaka lives with her parents on Bainbridge Island off the coast of Washington state. It is March 1942, three months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the country is at war with Japan. Manami loves walking on the beach with Grandfather and their beloved little dog, Yujiin. They notice a warship off their island and Manami tells Grandfather that the soldiers make her scared. Grandfather tells her "When the soldiers see you, they are scared, too,". He tells her that the soldiers think "people with Japanese faces and Japanese names will betray us,". After school that day Manami's teacher Mrs. Brown asks Manami, her friend Kimmi, Ryo and a few others to stay after school. Mrs. Brown tells them that this is their last day at school and that what is happening is not their fault.

At home the next day, Manami is instructed by her mother to gather the herbs and to pull the onion and garlic bulbs from their garden. Her mother washes all their clothing, towels and sheets. Despite her repeated questions asking what is happening, Manami is not told anything until the next day when she learns they must leave their home and their island. But Manami's mother does not know why or where they will go or for how long.

When they walk into town to register and get a medical check-up Manami notes that those doing so all have dark hair and dark eyes, just like her family. They are assigned a family number and go home to pack. Several days later Manami's family leave their home along with other Japanese. They take a truck to the port but before they leave Manami hides their little dog, Yujiin in her coat. They board the ferry to the mainland and then prepare to take a bus to the train station. However, just before boarding the bus, Yujiin is discovered and taken away and put in a crate. This upsets Manami terribly. Their train trip takes two days, during which Manami sits still and does not speak.

When they leave the train Manami's family are taken by bus to a place called Manzanar which has barbed wire fences, a guard tower and "buildings covered with black paper." Manzanar is in the middle of a prison and Manami's mother recognizes it for what it really is - a prison. The prison is divided into blocks with each block having fourteen barracks.  Manami's family is assigned to Block 3, Barrack 4. They share their building with another family, the Soto family. Manami learns that her friend Kimmi is in Block 7.

At Manzanar, Manami finds she cannot speak.
"But when I open my mouth to speak, the dirt no longer feels like sand. It sticks to my lips and tongue like red mud. It coats my throat so that I cannot speak.
I think this is what happened to me.
I wish the dirt would cloud my eyes, so that I would not see this place that is and is not my home without Yujiin."

Manzanar from the Dorothea Lange Gallery June 1942

Manami is both sad and angry. So sad and angry that she cannot speak. Her mother presses her to speak but Grandfather tells her to give her time. Eventually the family moves to a newly completed barracks, Barrack 8 in Block 3. Mother takes her seeds and the bulbs and plants a garden. She plants zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers and cantaloupes. The planting of the garden makes Manami realize they may be at Manzanar for a long time.

As time passes the garden begins to sprout but only because Manami must water it everyday. Her father works building new barracks while her mother begins work as a cook. Manami still does not talk and she believes she sometimes hears Yujiin. Kimmi tells her that there will soon be a school in Block 7. Even when her older brother Ron comes to Manzanar, Manami does not speak. The starting of school nor the forced recitation of the pledge does not help, as Manami simply cannot speak. Will she ever find her voice again? Will she ever find Yujiin again?


Paper Wishes is a touching story of a young girl who is deeply affected by the forced move of her family to an internment camp and the loss of her beloved dog Yujiin. Sepahban tells her story in the form of ten parts labelled from March to December of 1942. Paper Wishes captures the emotions and hardships Japanese Americans experienced as they were forced from their homes, leaving behind everything they had worked for, mainly due to fear and prejudice.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were forced to relocate to camps further inland as result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's signing of Executive Order 9066. This presidential order resulted in the relocation of approximately 122,000 Japanese Americans from the west coast of the United States. Interestingly as noted by the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive website, Japanese in Hawaii where Pearl Harbor is located were not relocated or incarcerated. As the website suggests, "The fact that so few Japanese Americans were incarcerated in Hawaii suggests that their mass removal on the West Coast was racially motivated rather than born of "military necessity." Agricultural interest groups in western states and many local politicians had long been opposed to the presence of Japanese Americans and used the attack on Pearl Harbor to step up calls for their removal."

Poster on Bainbridge Island
Sepahban touches on the racism that led to the decision to relocate Japanese Americans but in a gentle way for younger readers. Grandfather remarks to Manami that the soldiers are afraid of her. Manami notices that all the people being sent from their homes look just like her. But she also shows that not all Americans are prejudiced through the character of Miss Rosalie who tries to befriend Manami. Miss Rosalie is kind, gentle and understanding towards Manami and encourages her to draw. She shows respect towards Manami's family.  She also falls in love with Manami's brother Ron, demonstrating that she is not afraid of someone who is different.

The theme of loss is explored in the novel in several ways; Manami and her family's grief at losing their way of life and their culture, Miss Rosalie's loss when Ron is sent to another camp for his own safety and especially the loss of  Yujiin which is keenly felt by Grandfather and Manami. Manami is so overwhelmed by the loss of Yujiin she stops speaking. She comes to believe that it is her fault "that Yujiin is alone on the mainland, far from the island." She also believes that it is her "fault that Grandfather has stopped laughing." And she wonders if it is her "fault that Ron is with us in this prison-village, far from college." Manami believes that Yujiin is out there somewhere trying to get back to her. She decides to draw pictures of Yujiin and write promises on the paper: "Come, Yujiin and you can sleep in my bed." Then she walks to the edge of the camp and making a wish releases the paper into the wind. "I have added my paper promises to the air." Manami releases over thirty drawings but Yujiin does not return and Manami wonders if he did not get her drawings. Eventually Manami's loss is acknowledged by Grandfather and eventually he tells Manami she must stop looking for him because he will not come. Acknowledging her grief allows Manami to begin to move forward.

The inner journey Manami makes is reflected in the garden she and her mother plant in the barren desert. Every day the seeds must be watered and they flourish despite the hot, dry climate and a pounding rain storm that batters them into the ground. In October, Manami and her mother dig up the remnants of the garden and prepare it for next year. Manami's mother tells her that this garden was better than the island garden. "The island garden had plenty of rain," Mother says. "So much rain that it only grew shallow roots. This garden never had enough rain. So it had to grow deep roots. The island roots would never have survived the desert summer." Manami's struggles have made her a stronger person.

Paper Wishes explores the themes of family too. When Manami and her family report to register, her father makes sure that the soldiers understand that despite Grandfather's different surname of Ishii, he is part of their family. Manami's brother Ron is the oldest child and a young man and therefore considered responsible for his family. Because of this he returns from college to be with his father and mother, grandfather and Manami.

Paper Wishes would have benefited tremendously from good pencil illustrations. It's a shame so much new juvenile fiction goes without illustrations to accompany the story. Sepahban's character, Manami Tanaka has a very simple interior dialogue suggesting the book is definitely for younger readers. But readers of all ages will find themselves wanting pictures of Manami and her Grandfather walking on the beach with Yujiin, of the soldiers loading the trains or buses, of Manzanar and its barracks with the mountains in the distance, of Miss Rosalie and the school, of the mess hall, of Kimmi and Manami, of Manami sending her pictures into the wind, and of Yujiin.

The author includes a detailed Author's Note and a list of Resources at the back of this delightful short novel. This information will help young readers understand the context of the story. The riot mentioned in the novel actually did happen and was known as the Manzanar Riot.

Overall Paper Wishes is a beautiful and thoughtful treatment of a very sad event in American history.

For more information on the Manzanar War Relocation Center readers are directed to the National Park Service website. There is a webpage specifically about Japanese Americans as well as a cache of photographs of the people who lived there and the center.

The Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive has a wealth of images and information on the incarceration of Japanese Americans from the west coast.

The University of Washington Libraries Special Collections has a website on Bainbridge Island.

Information specific to the Japanese American community on Bainbridge Island can be found at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community website.

Book Details:

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban
New York: Margaret Ferguson Books    2016
181 pp.

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