Children's Review: Pearl

Sherri L. Smith (American Wings) movingly imagines the complex life of a teen caught between two warring countries in the piercing historical graphic novel Pearl. In 1941, Amy sails to Japan--where she's never been--to visit her "sick, maybe even dying" sōsobo (great-grandmother). She goes alone from Hawaii to Hiroshima, because her parents can't travel with new baby Henry. Amy won't return home for 11 years. Illustrator Christine Norrie meticulously documents Amy's harrowing separation in pages awash in hues of blues, emphasizing the somber experiences ahead.

Amy's sōsobo was an ama, "a pearl diver from the shores of Honshu in Japan." Stories of her aquatic prowess abound, particularly her discovery of a "perfect" pearl "the size of her fist." Sōsobo's grandson is Amy's father who immigrated to Hawaii. Amy meets her "new family... across the sea," spending her first three months on her uncle's farm outside Hiroshima; that chance to get to know Sōsobo is "better than anything."

"But time changes all things" and Japan attacks Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. As war commences, Sōsobo emboldens Amy with inspiring reminders of "ikinokoru... You must survive!" With her English fluency, Amy is conscripted as "a monitor girl," translating American radio broadcasts for the Japanese military. Meanwhile, her parents and baby brother are unjustly imprisoned by the U.S. government for being of Japanese descent; Henry dies. Sōsobo, too, passes away, but her entreaties to "ikinokoru" keep Amy alive after atomic blasts end World War II. Following an arduous recovery, Amy helps other hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) record their stories until she's finally allowed to go home.

Smith's dedication cites the "research and stories" of friend Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, a Japanese American writer whose titles center the Japanese American experience. In her acknowledgements, Smith credits Rizzuto's memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, with holding "the seeds of this story." Smith excels in capturing Amy's liminal state, caught between conflicting Japanese and American identities. Norrie, who is of Thai and Scottish descent, wordlessly expands Smith's narrative with her insightful illustrations: the (white) boys bullying Amy at the movie theater, glimpses of Amy's lonely voyage, and her poignant interactions with her sōsobo; most affecting perhaps is Norrie's 20 brutally realistic, near-textless pages documenting atomic destruction and its aftermath. Smith and Norrie's collaborative graphic title eloquently humanizes history with names, faces, and families, to create an intimate testimony of formidable challenges and resolute courage. --Terry Hong

Shelf Talker: A deft and affecting historical graphic novel collaboration about a Japanese American teen's complex experiences of World War II in Japan.

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