This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1995 winner, Under the Blood-Red Sun by Graham Salisbury.
The book opens on a fall day 1941 near Honolulu, Hawaii, when eighth-grader Tomikazu’s grandfather decides to hang out his newly-washed Japanese flag–where the neighbors can see it. Tomi and his little sister were born in Hawaii, and their parents and grandfather are first generation immigrants. His father is a fisherman, and his mother is a housekeeper. Tomi and his friends–Japanese, white, Hawaiian, and Portuguese–depend on family, friends, and baseball when their world is turned upside-down on Dec. 7.
1. Start off with tension. In the first three pages, we see Tomi arguing with his grandpa about showing his Japanese flag. Even kids who might not know the historical context will still see that Tomi is very nervous about what his grandpa is doing, and they argue about whether Tomi is Japanese or American. We don’t get a break, either, as the first chapter ends with the neighborhood bully messing with Tomi’s father’s beloved pigeons. I had to keep reading!
2. Half-point death. I’ve been learning–over and over again–how books and movies usually have something major happen right in the middle It’s often a death or near-death, and it can be literal or symbolic. This plot technique give structure to a story. It also allows the character to hit a low-point, yet come back with a new or slightly different motivation and/or goal. It seems to be a point where the character has to dedicate, or rededicate, himself or herself to the goal. In the case of Under the Blood-Red Sun, the half-point death is the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the arrest of Tomi’s father.
3. Focus on the character’s experience. Salisbury keeps the focus on Tomi and his world. First we get to know Tomi, his family, and the issues that this eighth-grader is dealing with, including a science project, baseball games, a bully, and pre-war racial tensions. Then, when Pearl Harbor is bombed, we see it from the distance of Tomi’s mountain home. It gives the reader, especially young readers, some distance from the horror of that day. However, Salisbury does bring some of the horror to Tomi because a Japanese plane flies right over his home and the pilot shoots at them.
Another way Salisbury shields young readers is by keeping all the human deaths “off-screen,” yet he brings death close when the pigeons die. [I won’t say more–spoilers.] We see the awfulness, in a way that hits Tomi, and the readers, worse than the deaths of unknown soldiers. Plus, the story is Tomi’s and how he learns to stand up for himself and his family–yet in a way that honors both himself and his family.
1. Japanese internment/arrests on Hawaii. One of the horrible things about WWII was the mass arrests and internment of the Japanese-Americans by the U.S. I knew about the internment of whole families from the West Coast, but I wasn’t as familiar with what happened on the Hawaiian islands. It happened there, too, but slightly different. Right after the bombing, many Japanese men were arrested, just because they were Japanese, but especially if they were leaders in the Japanese community. There was so much fear that they may have helped, or would help, the Japanese government attack the US. Later, many of the men are transferred to prison camps on the Mainland and many of their families were sent to join them.
In the book, Tomi’s father is arrested right away. The loss of his income puts the already-poor family into immediate crisis. Plus, Tomi lives with the anxiety of not knowing where his father is, if he’s okay, and if or when he’s coming home.
2. Examples of hatred, fear, compassion, bravery, and honor. One of the best things about historical fiction is how it makes events and people real to us. It makes us care about others’ stories.
In Under the Blood-Red Sun, we see how ashamed Tomi’s grandfather is that his beloved birth country would attack the U.S., and how it hurts him so much because of his culture’s emphasis on honor. He kept trying to teach Tomi about family honor, yet he was betrayed by his former land. We also see the reactions of Tomi’s neighbors toward them. Some responded with hate, some were just afraid, some continued to give their friendship and support. Salisbury brought it all down to concrete examples that Tomi experiences and then readers experience through Tomi.
Join me Tuesday, Dec. 16 (before my Christmas blog break) to talk about the 1987 winner, Streams to the River, River to the Sea by Scott O’Dell.
Children’s historical fiction is full of difficult subjects, yet handled in appropriate ways for younger readers. What are some other books (for readers younger than 14) that deal with war, death, prejudice, in an intense but appropriate way? Next month will be the 73rd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. How should we commemorate that day? How do we differentiate between a government’s action from an ethnic group’s culture? What are some other books/movies that have a midpoint death?