Our book this week is the 1994 Caldecott winner, Grandfather’s Journey, by Allen Say. This is a very unusual picture book, spare and subtle and controlled, with delicate, formally composed illustrations. The storyline follows Say’s grandfather from Japan to America, where he explores the country and falls in love with California. Nostalgia for the scenes of his youth brings him home to Japan; World War II prevents him from ever returning to America. It’s a book about being connected to two cultures and fully at home in neither.
Say continues to explore the same themes of ambivalence and mixed cultural identity in other books about his family; Tea with Milk and Tree of Cranes are two we’re also reading this week. These books are all very beautiful and very strange; they’re so emotionally complicated that they don’t “feel” like children’s books, but they have very much drawn Alex in. They are perfect examples of how picture books are still relevant and valuable to a child who is capable of reading at an advanced level.
Yesterday we read the book and traced Grandfather’s journey on the map, finding Japan, crossing the Pacific Ocean to California, and then breaking out the U.S. map to match the pictures of his American tour to their likely locations (painted rock pillars in the Southwest, endless rippling wheat fields in Kansas). We talked a bit about the war that prevented Grandfather from returning to visit California. The text never specifies that the war in question is World War II, so although Alex remembered that the U.S. fought Japan in that war she didn’t connect it with the story until I explained. We spoke, just a bit, about how the war began with the attack on Pearl Harbor. At greater length, we discussed how it might have felt to love two countries which were at war with each other, and Grandfather’s allegiance might have been viewed by both sides. She was puzzled to hear that the U.S. and Japan are now friends and allies.
Alex is full of questions about World War II. We talked about it most of the way through dinner tonight. She wanted to know what made Japan angry at the U.S., what connected Japan and Germany, how Russia was involved, what happened, why things changed after the war. We answered her questions as best as we could, given that there are huge aspects of the war that we are simply unwilling to discuss with a six-year-old.
I don’t suppose there are any picture-book histories of World War II that don’t address the Holocaust, Stalin, Bataan, Hiroshima…? Of course there aren’t.
There are picture books about the internment of Japanese-Americans. I have Baseball Saved Us, although I haven’t brought it out. I couldn’t bring myself to get So Far from the Sea from the library. I did tell Alex, in the context of Grandfather’s Journey, that Japanese-Americans were badly treated because people worried that just because of their ancestry they would be loyal to Japan. That’s probably enough for a six-year-old.
I am grateful that we won’t be studying World War II in a systematic way until we reach Story of the World Vol. 4 somewhere around the fourth grade, but I do like that Five in a Row gives us small tastes of big issues now, through the accessible medium of picture books.