Monday, November 28, 2011

Chapter Book Review - Sylvia & Aki by Winifred Conkling

Winifred Conkling's Sylvia and Aki is a deceptively slim little book, the kind kids are drawn to for book reports or school projects because it's so skinny. And yet, for all its brevity, Sylvia and Aki packs a punch.

The story is a fictionalized account of the lives of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, opening in 1941. Aki's family has been evacuated from their farm, sent to a Japanese internment camp in the furor that resulted from the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Aki's father is taken away first, with no notice -- she is terrified that she will never see him again, that their family will always be separated. Because of the restrictions about what the family could take with them, Aki has had to leave some of her most precious things behind, including her favorite doll, which she tucks onto the shelf in her closet, hoping she'll be back to reclaim her.

Sylvia finds Aki's doll, on a very bad day when she is in need of comfort. Sylvia and her family are renting the farm from the Munemitsus, and Sylvia's father is the boss, something the family is very proud of. But the day Sylvia's aunt takes the children to enroll in the closest school, they discover that Mexicans must attend the migrant school. Everything about the Hoover School is second-best, from the rundown buildings to the battered supplies. And Sylvia's father is determined to get his daughter into the Westminster School, which so far is white students only.

Each family struggles. Each girl feels lost, alone, uncertain. But as time passes the girls come into contact with one another, and a friendship slowly blossoms, borne of shared hardship and isolation. Life for the girls is not easy, but knowing that there is someone else, someone like them who feels on the outside of things, makes it all just a little easier to bear.

Conkling weaves the girls' stories together skillfully, showing how both Sylvia and Aki were outsiders because of something they had no control over, the color of their skin. Aki's time in the camp is particularly poignant, as we feel with her the pain of loss and the fear that her family will never be whole again. Like Aki, Sylvia is made to feel foreign, an outsider, as school district officials assume she is unclean or tell her to go back to Mexico (with the irony being that she is American). Conkling depicts the quiet heroism mirrored in each girls' individual heartbreak. Because the girls experience a similar day-to-day reality, as victims of prejudice and open racism, when they find friendship in one another, it is all the more sweet.

One of the readings in my multicultural kidlit class last week pointed out that children's books with a diverse cast almost always include white characters in the mix. This hadn't occurred to me, but flipping through some of Sprout's books I can see it's true. Sylvia and Aki is that rare thing, a book that examines racism from the inside without casting a white person in the role of savior. For these girls, breaking down barriers just meant living the lives they dreamed of. It's hard to think of a more inspiring tale, no matter what your skin color.

Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling, published by Tricycle Press
Ages 8-12
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Then Aki said good-bye to the nurse, picked up her suitcase, and took her mother's hand. She missed her father. She missed her home. She missed the life she used to have. But when she felt her mother's hand in hers, she knew that she was ready to face Poston."

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