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Joy Kogawa, illustrated by Ruth Ohi,
Naomi’s Tree
Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2008.

Ages: 4-8

Joy Kogawa, illustrated by Ruth Ohi,
Naomi’s Road
Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2005.

Ages: 9-12

Both Naomi’s Tree and Naomi’s Road contain the well-known character of Naomi from Joy Kogawa’s most famous book, Obasan, published in 1983.  Naomi is a young girl when her family is uprooted from their home in Vancouver, British Columbia at the outset of the Pacific War in 1942.  Naomi along with her brother must accompany her aunt and uncle to an internment camp for Japanese Canadians at Slocan, located in the mountainous terrain of interior British Columbia.  Naomi’s mother is not with her; she is in Japan tending her ailing mother and is unable to return because of the war. 

While Naomi’s Road focuses on Naomi’s journey of growing awareness and consciousness of the plight of Japanese Canadians during the war in much the same way Obasan does, Naomi’s Tree is more a story of the aftermath, of the events looked at from the perspective of old age.  The two books are aimed at different audiences but conclude with a wonderful image: Naomi in her old age embracing the cherry tree of her childhood home.  The image is in fact taken from the recent real-life event of Kogawa revisiting her childhood home and seeing the old cherry tree in the yard just as it stood when her family had been displaced several decades earlier.  The power of that moment generated an effort to preserve the house and Kogawa House in Vancouver is now a functioning residence for writers.

The story of Naomi as told in these two books is a great way to introduce children to the history of Japanese Canadians.  Both books are illustrated with delicately wrought images by Ruth Ohi.  Naomi’s Tree, in particular, carries the motif of the cherry tree and blossoms throughout the story in a subtle but reinforcing manner. Both books symbolically contain images of the older Naomi encountering the cherry tree late in her life. Fraught and difficult as life was for Naomi, she is given great strength and courage in the gifts of love she receives from her family despite the absence of her mother.  She learns to battle the inherent racism of the time with patience and understanding.

The important aspect of reading books like these to children is to let them know that the ‘them’ they have always perceived as outside of themselves is really an ‘us’ that can be identified with and whose feelings can be understood and shared by all.

Sally Ito
August 2009

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