Book Spotlight: A Place Where Sunflowers Grow – Amy Lee-Tai

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, written by Amy Lee-Tai and illustrated by Felicia Hoshino, depicts snapshots of life in Topaz, as seen through the eyes of Mari, a young Nikkei girl.

What I liked:

  • I added this book to my TBR as soon as I learned it was bilingual. As someone with relatives inside and outside Japan, I know firsthand how important it is for 日本人 to learn about 日系 experiences, and vice versa. I also think it’s important for these exchanges to begin happening early, which is why it’s so exciting to find bilingual children’s books by Japanese authors.
  • Felicia Hoshino’s illustrations are charming. To me, they also feel as if they were created with true affection for and knowledge of Japanese faces. I appreciate how Hoshino and Lee-Tai both have family connections to the camps, which makes this book stand apart from the recent influx of non-Japanese-written content on the camps. Did Lee-Tai approach Hoshino about doing the illustrations, or was Hoshino hired by the publisher after the manuscript was sold? At any rate, kudos to the person who understood the importance of hiring a Japanese, and especially Nikkei, illustrator for this book.
  • The dominance of yellow in the illustrations was very interesting. As a child, I learned to think of yellow – well, some shades of yellow – as a very おとなしい color, influenced largely in part by the Japanese children’s books my mother read to me. Also, ひまわり is a common motif in Japan, especially for things targeted at children, so my general impression of yellow is more positive than negative. At the same time, in the context of the camps, yellow can be associated with the hot, dry sand, the endless desert, the piercing sunlight, and many other natural elements which made life miserable for incarcerated Nikkei. I would love to know if 日本人 versus 日系 children interpreted the color scheme differently, based on their personal and/or cultural associations with yellow. In my case, I don’t think I would have fully grasped the mental, emotional, and physical toll of being in the camps if I had read this book as a child, because the illustrations do not strike me as particularly unhappy or unpleasant. That said, I also wonder if Hoshino selected her color scheme in order to lighten the mood, since the overall theme of the book is one of hope and resilience in the face of oppression and injustice.
  • I remember giant sunflowers growing in my parents’ yard when I was a child. Reading the author’s note about sunflowers at the end of the book brought the memory back, and I wondered if my grandfather and his family ever saw those sunflowers during their time in Topaz.

What I learned:

  • At one point, Mari’s father is still teaching a class while the rest of his family lines up for dinner. I seem to recall mealtimes were strictly observed in the camps, so I wonder what this meant for camp inmates with overlapping commitments. Did they all have families like Mari’s father does to hold their places in line? Were there so many classes being held that some of them absolutely had to overlap with mealtimes? I realize I’ve read a fair amount on how people felt at being in the camps, but less about daily camp routines and the systems Nikkei created to organize their lives.

Questions I had:

  • Does Lee-Tai read or write Japanese? According to the credits at the end of the book, the translation was done by Marc Akio Lee, with assistance from others. I ask because I felt the closing line in Japanese was more powerful and emotionally resonant than the same line in English, though the overall sentiment seemed essentially identical.
  • Did Hoshino’s initial sketches include any images of the fully-grown sunflowers? The title evokes such a vivid image, I was a little surprised when no corresponding illustration appeared in the book. This is not a criticism of the book, but I would be interested in knowing if other Japanese/Nikkei readers felt the same. Also, the final illustration instantly reminded me of トトロ – was this a deliberate allusion on Hoshino’s part? It seems like a somewhat whimsical comparison to draw, especially in light of the serious subject matter, but I can also see Hoshino wanting to demonstrate how hopeful and triumphant Mari and her companions are after finding ways to make life in camp bearable, in the same way Satsuki and Mei celebrate when they see the shoots in the garden. 夢だけど、夢じゃなかった!

Follow-up:

  • I think I have a book about Chiura Obata and his time in Topaz, which seems like a fitting follow-up to this story.