This book, written by husband and wife team Rick Noguchi & Deneen Jenks, is a real gem. It tells the story of a young Japanese American girl, Mariko, and her family as they return to California after being imprisoned in American concentration camps (also known as internment camps or relocation centers; simply referred to as ‘Camp’ by Japanese Americans of that time) during World War II. An authors’ note provides additional context at the end of the book.
I found this book to be excellent in several ways. To begin with, the artwork of Michelle Reiko Kumata is a revelation. It is apparent that the illustrations were based on actual black-and-white photos from the 1940s, but Kumata’s pictures bring the story to life in beautiful full color. Drawn with bold outlines, her pictures are full of patterns and textures from period fabrics, shadowing that adds depth to every scene, and subtle, authentic details such as the furoshiki-wrapped bundle that one woman carries on her way to Camp. Though the story’s subject matter is far from uplifting, it was still a joy to gaze at every page of this book.
The story of Mariko and her family is historically accurate, and reflects the experiences of thousands of Japanese Americans who were living on the West Coast when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Allowed to bring only what they could carry, Japanese Americans were forced by the United States government to leave behind their homes and businesses and move to remote concentration camps. In the process, they lost most of their belongings as well as their livelihoods. Once it was declared that Japanese Americans were free to leave Camp and return to the West Coast or move elsewhere, they had very little with which to rebuild their lives. It is at this point of starting over that Flowers from Mariko begins.
The wonderful pictures help to prevent this sobering but historically important story from feeling too dark for children to enjoy. I was impressed with the authors’ skill in addressing the topic of the internment from a child’s point of view and also in fitting such a diverse range of emotions into one small children’s book. The character of Mariko demonstrates anger, excitement, anxiety, embarrassment, disappointment, compassion, hopefulness, and happiness over the course of the story. This realistic portrayal of the Japanese American internment and its aftermath ends on an optimistic note, as Mariko presents her father with flowers that she grew from seed and he announces that he has lined up his first gardening job since they returned from Camp. It’s not much, but it’s a new beginning.
Recommendation: Highly recommended for ages 6 and up, particularly for the story’s historical significance. Japanese American children of all ages may appreciate that this book touches on a chapter of American history about which many older Japanese Americans still will not speak.
Reviewer: Kelly Pattillo