Holly Thompson, illustrated by Kazumi Wilds,
The Wakame Gatherers
Shen’s Books, 2007.
The loving relationship between grandchild and grandparent takes on an added dimension in this touching story of intergenerational communication and connection. Holly Thompson's children's-book debut, The Wakame Gatherers is a tale of two grandmothers, one who lives with her young granddaughter’s family in Japan, and the other who arrives from the US for a visit. Nanami, the young granddaughter whose name means Seven Seas, deftly switches between Japanese and English to translate for her Baachan and for Gram from Maine. At Baachan’s invitation, the three of them set out with long poles and blades for a day's adventure of harvesting seaweed the traditional way. Gram’s enthusiasm for wakame gathering is tempered by Nanami’s anxieties about translating: "Gram likes adventures, but I’m not so sure," she worries.
The tale takes a brief somber turn when questions from Nanami about Baachan’s childhood memories of wakame gathering remind the old woman of the American bombings during WWII. Japanese illustrator Kazumi Wilds’ depiction of Baachan’s memory - a crying, fleeing young girl and her brother running from a horizon engulfed in flames - starkly reminds us that Baachan’s and Gram’s countries were once enemies. "Nanami-chan," Baachan solemnly asks her mixed-heritage granddaughter, "always protect this peace."
Japan-based author Holly Thompson, originally from New England, demonstrates a comfort level with both cultures by providing accurate details of life in coastal Maine and shoreline Japan. Wild's vivid watercolor paintings, many extending across two pages, richly provide details of their expedition and the strenuous poling, soaking, drying and finally, eating of the wakame. Her illustrations accurately depict Japanese architecture, signage and flora in contrast to the rocky shores and pine trees of Maine.
In the Author’s Note, more information about types of edible seaweed, a small Japanese glossary, and wakame recipes add heft to the cultural richness of the book. Notably, the author shows a particular sensitivity to the feelings of a young child whose elders depend upon her for translation.
At the story’s close, clever illustrations of a few snapshots let readers guess how Gram repays Baachan for the adventure of gathering wakame in Japan. The Wakame Gatherers is a good example of how common experiences can bring people together across oceans and through time. It reminds us that reaching greater understanding of one another is always worth the journey.
Kristen O. Daniel