Amy Lee-Tai, illustrated by Felicia Hoshino,
A Place Where Sunflowers Grow
Children’s Book Press, 2006.
This is the story of a little girl who is having trouble settling into her new home, a not unfamiliar scenario in many children’s lives. But where Mari’s story differs is that she and her family have been sent to a Japanese American internment camp during the Second World War. She feels keenly the injustice of these events that she has been caught up in but doesn’t really understand: ‘Everything but her family had been taken from Mari – and she hadn’t done anything wrong’. Mari cuts herself off from her new surroundings. Children reading the book will feel her sadness, so heart-wrenchingly portrayed in Felicia Hoshino’s beautiful illustrations: little Mari’s withdrawn face staring at a blank piece of paper or at her untouched plate of food; and adults will empathise with the worry of those who care for her.
It is only recently that this painful episode in America’s history is emerging into the mainstream: in 1942 the US government ordered 120,000 American citizens of Japanese origin to pack up only the belongings they could carry and relocated them to ‘internment camps’: barracked housing surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and patrolled by military police. Life in the camps was hard: those interned at the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah, which is the setting for this book, had to contend with the desert conditions of scorching summers and freezing winters. There was very little privacy and nowhere else to go. It seems a cruel irony at first that the camp should have been called Topaz: but as Mari’s story unfolds, sparkles of hope emerge like flashes glinting off this precious stone the same color as the desert. By the end of the story, Mari is able to chatter away with her father, peppering him with all her pent-up questions; she has held up a picture for her art class to look at; she has found a friend she can laugh with; and, her link with home, the sunflower seeds she had planted at the beginning of the story have sprouted.
Mari’s art class is also based on fact: indeed, the book highlights what is a little-known area of the history of these camps and that is the establishment of Art Schools for children and adults alike. Painting was a vent for self-expression and gave meaning to the lives of many internees. Mari’s story is based on the experience of the author, Amy Lee-Tai’s mother and grandparents. They were both artists who had had to leave much of their work behind when they were interned. They both taught and painted at the Topaz Art School. Her grandmother was the much-respected Japanese American artist Hisako Hibi, whose experiences of Topaz are recorded in Peaceful Painter: Memoirs of an Issei Woman Artist (Heyday Books, 2004). Hoshino’s illustrations here carry echoes of Hisako Hibi’s paintings: the sunflowers on the title page; the swirls of the dust storm; and most notably the mother washing her child in the busy bathhouse scene, a direct copy of Hisako Hibi’s Homage to Mary Cassat, painted in 1943 during her internment at Topaz.
A Place Where Sunflowers Grow is a tribute to the dignity of the thousands of Japanese Americans who were subjected to internment. The love, compassion, understanding, patience and kindness of Mari’s family and her art teacher Mrs Hanamoto are the indomitable qualities which emerge from the book, which is why it will be of enduring value. It is also of immense importance because it makes this area of history accessible to even the youngest child. Through the sensitive narrative and its finely tuned illustrations, children of a very young age will be able to absorb this one little girl’s personal journey to mental freedom; as they become more aware of her surroundings, the full implications of their injustice will become clear. Older readers who are already aware of the historical background will be no less caught up with this one character representative of so many others. By reaching out to the innate sense of justice in all young people, A Place Where Sunflowers Grow has an important role to play in giving out the message that such wrong must never happen again.