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*Sylvia and Aki* by Winifred Conkling - middle grades book review
Sylvia and Aki
by Winifred Conkling
Ages 9-12 160 pages Tricycle Press July 2011 Hardcover    

Engaging the reader with strong character development combined with a unique and true storyline, Sylvia and Aki is difficult to put down until the very end. When a child reads historical fiction, it can sometimes be difficult for them to imagine themselves in the time and place of the characters, especially when the experiences of those characters are so very different from their own. Winifred Conkling immediately situates her characters, Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, not only in California during World War II, but also places them into the hearts and minds of the reader.

The novel begins with an interesting note about word choice. Sensitive to the reader, Conkling explains why she uses the terms Mexican and Japanese instead of Mexican American and Japanese American, which are the politically correct terms of today.

Moreover, because the girls in the story are assimilating into American culture, they use American names for their parents (“Mom” and “Dad” or “Pop”) rather than traditional ethnic names. These choices reflect the author’s desire to respectfully present a fictionalized story of two real people who lived through one of the most difficult and prejudicial periods of American history.

Third-grader Sylvia Mendez lives with her family on a farm that her father has leased from a Japanese family who has been sent to Arizona to live in an internment camp. When it is time for Sylvia and her brother to register for school, they are told that they may not attend the public school closest to their home but rather must attend the substandard Mexican school. Her father fights the decision through the legal system.

Aki’s story is told in alternating chapters from Sylvia’s. Aki ‘s family is very upset when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Although they are loyal Americans, people’s perceptions of them change. Eventually, Aki’s father is imprisoned as a suspected subversive, and the rest of the family is forced to move to an internment camp.

The girls’ stories move together when Sylvia finds a Japanese doll tucked away in a closet. She writes to Aki and eventually meets her when her father takes the rent check to the family at the camp. Both girls face prejudice and discrimination.

Their story provides teachers with ample opportunities to compare and contrast both girls’ situations, as well as leading to discussions of other similar situations in history and today. An afterword, resources for further reading, bibliography, and photos of the real Sylvia and Aki complete the book.

Sylvia and Aki is a quick, very engaging story. Each chapter begins with an appropriate Japanese or Mexican proverb. The girls’ personalities are realistic and fully developed; they immediately connect the reader to the characters and the story.
The author skillfully weaves historical context into the story, so that no prior knowledge is needed, yet the time and place become a central theme uniting the girls and igniting feelings of empathy and caring. Highly recommended for girls in grades 3-6.
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  Kristine Wildner/2011 for curled up with a good kid's book  

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