A Place Where Sunflowers Grow
written by Amy Lee-Tai
illustrated by Felicia Hoshino

Amy Lee-Tai's A Place Where Sunflowers Grow
illustrated by Felicia Hoshino

Book review by Anita Lock

Ages 6-8

A Girl Finds Beauty in Times of Bewilderment

Mari is staring at the parched ground, wondering when the sunflower seeds she planted will sprout, and will they be as tall and strong and beautiful as the ones in her old backyard? Her mother’s response is one of immense patience:  “It will take time, patience, and care. Flowers don’t grow easily in the desert.”

Where is Mari when she asks this question? Definitely, she is not at her home. Mari is one of 120,000 Japanese refugees living in Topaz, Utah, one of the U.S. internment camps during World War II.

This land, this place, has no beauty, but of course this is better than the horse stall Mari and her family lived in earlier in their internment, prior to this one-room dwelling in a tarpaper barrack. As she waters her seeds, Mari’s mind wanders back to her family’s flower-filled backyard in California.

She’s brought back to reality when her papa calls her, reminding her that it is time for art school, one-mile from their home on Block 29.

from Amy Lee-Tai's 'A Place Where Sunflowers Grow.' The beauty of home. The ugliness of the internment camp.

There is such a shift in the illustrations, from memories of Mari’s backyard to the walk to art school.

Hoshino contrasts happiness and sadness, beauty and barrenness. She masterfully captures the playfulness and color of Mari and her brother playing, with sunflowers in the forefront, then counters it with a bland barrack scene featuring a soldier holding a gun in the forefront, while her papa and Mari (the only one clad in lively-colored clothing), make their way to Topaz Art School on Block 7.

This is the first time we sense a glimmer of hope in the main character of the story, but she doesn’t know that yet.

Review - A Place Where Sunflowers Grow

Mari’s papa, who is a professional artist, drops her off at Mrs. Hanamoto’s class, while he leaves for another room to instruct adults.

Mrs. Hanamoto instructs the children to draw whatever they want. Mari is at a loss as to what to draw. Nothing is beautiful, and once again the illustrations call attention to contrast between the other children in the room who are contentedly coloring, while Mari looks downcast with a blank sheet of paper set before her. Following class is supper in an overcrowded barrack. Mari shares how she could not think of anything to color. Her papa’s response surprises her:  “That happens to me sometimes, too, but I don’t give up.”

The next day, as Mari wonders what Mrs. Hanamoto will want the children to draw, her mother reminds her of Papa's advice: "You will be able to draw, just like your sunflowers will be able to grow."

Settling into her chair at art school later on, Mrs. Hanamoto tells the children to draw something that makes them happy at Topaz.

This time Mrs. Hanamoto notices that once again Mari has a blank paper. She gently lets the child know that there have been other children who have had a difficult time coming up with ideas. Since Mari can't think of one thing that makes her happy at Topaz, her teacher suggests that she draw something that made her happy before she came there.

Review - A Place Where Sunflowers Grow

Bingo! We can almost see a light bulb turn on above Mari's head, as she is looking straight into our eyes with a flicker of a smile and a crayon ready in her grasp.

This time she knows: her backyard in California. It is at this point in the story the ray of hope broadens at a time of hopelessness. But there is more.

This story, for certain, has a sweet ending.

Felicia Hoshino’s use of watercolor, ink, tissue paper, and acrylic paint brings Amy Lee-Tai’s powerful yet tender storytelling to life. A Place Where Sunflowers Grow is not only a multicultural book, but is bilingual since it is written both in English and Japanese.

Though this is a work of historical fiction, it is loosely based on the author’s grandmother and prominent Japanese American painter, Hisako Hibi, who lived as a young girl at Topaz Interment Camp during the war. There is an author’s note to this effect, plus information about the Japanese interment on the last page of this incredible book, which will make a wonderful addition to your history collection.

More Jane Addams Book Award winners.

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