Gift Guide 2018: The WW2 Story You Haven’t Heard

December 14, 2018 § Leave a comment

Where are my World War II buffs at? If my son’s reaction is any indication, they will want to read this incredible, largely unknown story. When Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot’s WW2 Story (Ages 7-10), written by Marc Tyler Nobleman and illustrated by Melissa Iwai, first showed up on our doorstop, my son took one look at the Japanese prop plane on the cover and whisked it away. He returned twenty minutes later. “Mommy, this book is AMAZING. You will definitely want to write about this.”

What sucked my son in was the promise of warfare, which the story initially delivers on, giving a fascinating account of the only two times the United States’ mainland was bombed during WW2, both times by Japanese bomber pilot Nobuo Fujita, during a covert mission off a submarine in 1942. Say what?! Why have I never heard about this? That’s because the bombs did very little damage. Dropped over a large forested area outside the town of Brookings, Oregon, the bombs were intended to start a large fire which would then spread to nearby towns—only the ground was too wet for the flames and smoke to catch. The greater danger befell Nobuo himself, who almost couldn’t locate the sub on his way back from the second bombing and nearly ran out of fuel in the air.

The bombings, however, are just a part of the book’s story. More extraordinary is what happened twenty years later, in a rare and beautiful example of reconciliation between two former foes. In an effort to drum up tourism, Brookings mailed an invitation to Nobuo in Japan, inviting him to attend their Memorial Day festival as a guest of honor. Nobuo, who lived outside Tokyo and owned a hardware store, had long suffered depression and guilt following the war. He had “never [not even with his family] discussed his Oregon raids, though they were rarely out of his mind.” He knew the intention of the raids had been to harm and kill. When word got out about the invitation, many people in America were as shocked as Nobuo’s family to learn what he had done. And many on both sides of the ocean felt Nobuo should decline the invitation. In America, there were protests and petitions.

Still, the governor of Oregon, backed by President John F. Kennedy, spoke out in support of the invitation, echoing the sentiments of a local veteran, who said of Nobuo, “he was doing a job and we were doing a job.” Nobuo and his wife flew to Oregon on a jetliner. (“A little larger than the plane in which I made my first trip,” Nobuo joked.)

Nobuo’s visit to Brookings—and the reciprocal visits that followed, including one 23 years later, when Nobuo paid to host three Brookings high school students in Tokyo—showcases the very best of our two countries. Indeed, it showcases the very best of humanity. I can scarcely read these pages without tearing up. There is such dignity in the way in which the town of Brookings sets aside the past and honors Nobuo with an American parade. (There’s good fun, too, when Nobuo is served “a large submarine sandwich topped with a plane made of pickles and a half-olive helmet.”) Similarly, there is such grace in the way Nobuo gifts to the people of Brookings his 400-year-old samurai sword, the same family heirloom he kept with him for luck during the wartime raids. Or in the way he shows Americans around his homeland. “The war is finally over for me,” Nobuo said.

Children may come to this book for promises of planes and bombs, but they will leave with an appreciation for the wounds of war—and a hope that some of these wounds can be soothed through forgiveness. Nobuo and the people of Brookings kept up their friendship until the very end of Nobuo’s life, when a Brookings town representative sat with Nobuo on his deathbed and explained that the town had made him an honorary citizen. To this day, the Brookings library houses thousands of dollars’ worth of children’s books about other cultures, all donated by Nobuo. “[Nobuo] wondered if World War II would have been different had his generation grown up reading books like those.”

I can’t help but hope that reading books like Thirty Minutes Over Oregon might also help our children’s generation think about what can be gained from letting our heart, not our politics, fly the plane.


Review copy from Clarion Books. All opinions are my own. affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

This holiday season, I’m running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see them. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly beg you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.

2017 Gift Guide (No. 5): For the Global Citizen

December 14, 2017 § 5 Comments

What if there was a children’s book which came with a budding world view? What if, in giving a book this holiday season, you helped a child feel a little more connected to the planet she or he calls home?

Last spring, we took a family trip to Italy, our first time overseas with our children. Some (ahem, elder) relatives of mine were not shy about questioning the wisdom of taking our six and nine year old on such a trip. More than once, I was asked, rhetorically: “Don’t you think you should hold off on spending all that money until your children are older and will actually remember the things they see?” (Occasionally, this was prefaced by, “I know I should hold my tongue, but…”)

I can’t pretend to believe my kids will retain the specifics of their two weeks spent in the small hill towns and big cities of Italy. But I like to think they will remember their unfettered enthusiasm, their adventurous spirit, and—best of all—their curiosity about the things that matched or didn’t match their ideas of life outside America’s borders. One afternoon, as we were walking through the medieval streets of Orvieto, my son locked eyes on a trio of elementary-aged boys, sporting backpacks and engaged in animated conversation. As they half-walked, half-jogged down the sidewalk, the boys passed a soccer ball back and forth. “Mommy, I think those kids just got out of school,” my son said to me. “They look like they are having fun.” He didn’t say anything more, but as he watched them until they were out of sight, I could see the wheels turning in his head: I wonder what their school is like. I like soccer, too. I wonder whether they’ll go straight home or stop somewhere to play. I wish I could understand them.

In his enticing new picture book, This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids From Around the World (Ages 5-10), Matt Lamothe speaks directly to children’s curiosity about other children, about what life is like in other corners of the world. The book reminds me of the popular DK title, Children Just Like Me: A New Celebration of Children Around the World, which received a lovely makeover last year. And yet, I think I like This Is How We Do It even more. In it, Lamothe approaches the same subject with a child-centric directness and a clean, contemporary design. (We would expect nothing less from Chronicle Books.) My kids absolutely adore it, especially my daughter, who frequently picks it up on her own.

This Is How We Do It follows seven real kids from around the world—Russia, Peru, Japan, India, Uganda, Italy, and Iran (note the United States is not one of them!)—as they tell us about their daily lives, both at home and in school. (Though the illustrations are digitally rendered in a soft, cohesive palette, Lamothe offers proof of the characters’ realness by presenting photographs of them with their families at the book’s end.)

As the children describe the different components of their lives, the layouts invite the reader to make cultural comparisons. In fact, therein lies the fun! Each spread presents the children’s responses on one of thirteen different topics, beginning with “This is where I live.” Side by side, we glimpse a “wood and mud” hut in a Ugandan village; a bright orange stucco-ed residence in an Italian vineyard; and a skinny brick house in the busy Tokyo metropolis.

Some of the most eye-catching differences occur across “This is how I go to school”—an immediate favorite with my clan. In India, Anu’s mother drives her and her friends through packed streets, where cows roam freely. Now, contrast that with Abwooli, the Ugandan girl, who walks to school for thirty minutes across dirt paths bordered by eucalyptus and banana trees.

When we read this book as a family, my kids will avidly debate which country seems like the most fun. Like the fickle spirits they are, their favorites vary from page to page. With all three meals of the day covered, there are many opportunities to discuss whether we’re glad we eat oatmeal each morning, or whether we’d prefer a Japanese breakfast of “rice with furikake, miso soup, grilled cod, and an orange wedge.” “Kids drink coffee in Peru?!” my son exclaims. Unfamiliar words like matoke (Ugandan banana) and kasha (Russian porridge) are explained in the book’s Glossary.

Personally, I love the spreads showcasing the different classrooms, as well as the subjects studied. In Iran, Kian wears a bright green uniform to an all-boys’ school to study the Quran, in addition to writing and math, whereas Meo’s Italian school promotes regular cultural and green-space field trips, and the kids get to wear whatever they want.

“This is how I spell my name” is perhaps the most strikingly, beautifully diverse spread.

More often than not—and this feels like Lamothe’s central message—we identify more similarities than differences, both when comparing our own American lives to the ones on the pages, as well as when contrasting the different countries. Readers will easily observe how all children have the same fundamental needs, not only for food, shelter, and education, but for familial love and peer companionship. The pages on playtime feel especially universal, with games like soccer, skipping rope, and freeze tag. And though the tools and settings might look different, the household chores depicted resemble what many American children do to help out their families, including hanging laundry or caring for a sibling.

The onus is on us parents to point out the impossibility that one child’s experience can encapsulate an entire culture. A child’s daily life in Tokyo would look quite different than one in rural Japan, say nothing of social or economic differences within a community. Still, This is How We Do It provides a lovely beginning to a conversation about broadening our children’s perspectives, about helping them see themselves against the larger, richer, more diverse tapestry which is their world.

Lamothe closes with a single picture of a night sky and the caption, “This is my night sky,” as if to remind our children that, at the end of the day, we all fall asleep under the same stars. In a world where technology, trade, and travel are collapsing more borders than ever before, education along these lines becomes the first step towards compassion, collaboration, and concord.

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Published by Chronicle Books. All opinions are my own. affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!


2016 Gift Guide (No. 1): My Favorite Book of the Year

December 1, 2016 § 10 Comments

"The Sound of Silence" by Katrina Goldsaito & Julia KuoIn the past, I’ve kicked off my holiday gift guide with my favorite book of the year. This is hard enough on a normal year, but by all accounts, 2016 has been an exceptional year for children’s literature. I have a wealth of extraordinary books—picture books that will take your breath away, chapter books with heroes and heroines for the ages—to tell you about over the next few weeks, in hopes of satisfying everyone on your shopping list. Trust me when I say that this year’s books will make you the gift-giving hero you’ve always dreamed of being.

But, in light of these past few tumultuous months and the uncertainty that lies ahead, I need to put at the very top of my favorites a book that reminds all of us—young and old—that it is possible to find some quiet amidst the noise.

On the day before Thanksgiving, in the late afternoon, my daughter and I took a walk to a small nature reserve near our house. In anticipation of our extended family’s impending arrival and the holiday weekend before us, our hearts were full. We held hands, belted out “This Land is Your Land,” and skipped our feet. I tried to push aside the inevitable pangs of nostalgia, since it is never lost on me that it won’t be long until my little girl grows past the age of holding hands and singing in public with her mother.

There we were, making a racket and coming upon the entrance to the park, when Emily suddenly stopped and dropped her voice to a whisper. “Shhhh, Mommy, listen.” She paused. “It’s completely still.” I stopped mid-verse and joined her in listening to what indeed seemed like a total absence of sound. For a moment, it felt like we were the only living things in the world. Under a colorless sky, the light was dim, the fallen leaves had lost their luster, and the landscape around us seemed to be holding its breath.

But then we listened harder and we heard them: the sound of a squirrel tunneling through a pile of dried leaves; the sound of a leaf blower in the distance; two children shouting at each other down by the stream. Once again, the noise of the world commenced around us–only I felt different now, and I could tell that Emily did, too. That moment of stillness had wrapped itself around us, bonding us to its warm embrace. It seemed to mark the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Emily ran ahead down the dirt path to join the children at the stream. And I hung back, marveling at the few trees that still held onto their leaves, as if for dear life.

“Without silence, sound would be meaningless.” So insisted the contemporary Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu, who it turns out is the inspiration behind Katrina Goldsaito’s sublime new children’s picture book, The Sound of Silence (Ages 5-10). The book’s afterward tells us that Takemitsu was a neighbor to Goldsaito’s father in Tokyo, and that once the musician had claimed his favorite sound was “the sound of silence.”

How can silence have a sound, and how does one go about finding it? These are the questions that lie at the heart of The Sound of Silence, a story about a Japanese boy exploring and observing his beloved Tokyo.

As he walks to and from school, young Yoshio is fascinated by the “symphony hall” of sounds surrounding him. There’s the “zaa-zaa” of the rain on his umbrella, the “kiiii” of the breaking cars, and his own escalating giggles at the sound his boots make “squishing and squashing through the puddles.”

"The Sound of Silence" by Katrina Goldsaito & Julia Kuo

On this particular day, one sound stands out above the rest. “High and then low, squeaky and vibrating,” it’s the sound of a koto player tuning her instrument.

"The Sound of Silence" by Katrina Goldsaito & Julia Kuo

“Sensei,” Yoshio said,
“do you have a favorite sound?”

“The most beautiful sound,”
the koto player said,
“is the sound of ma, of silence.”

“Silence?” Yoshio asked.

But the koto player just smiled a
mysterious smile and went back to her playing.

What follows is a series of attempts by the boy to pinpoint this elusive “sound of silence” in his daily life. During recess, for instance, he escapes to the bamboo grove at the edge of the playground. Instead of silence, he hears only the “takeh-takeh-takeh” as the wind “banged [the] stalks together.”

"The Sound of Silence" by Katrina Goldsaito & Julia Kuo

Later, he looks for it at home. “It wasn’t in the dining room, where there was always the sound of chopsticks and slurping and chewing and swallowing.” (Don’t I know it.)

"The Sound of Silence" by Katrina Goldsaito & Julia Kuo

“Silence wasn’t in the bath, where even his toes made noise and the little droplets of water kept dripping off his nose.”

"The Sound of Silence" by Katrina Goldsaito & Julia Kuo

Each of these attempts combines to create a mesmerizing portrait of the city of Tokyo, with its array of vivid colors and an at once dizzying yet ordered backdrop of black-haired figures, flashing billboards, high-speed trains, exotic food stands, tatami floor mats, arbor-lined boulevards, bicycling school girls, stray dogs, and sharp-cornered buildings.

"The Sound of Silence" by Katrina Goldsaito & Julia Kuo

(My daughter was ecstatic to catch the reference to the Anime figure, Totoro, on a wall calendar in the boy’s classroom, a nod to her favorite children’s movie right now—and another must for your holiday list.)

"The Sound of Silence" by Katrina Goldsaito & Julia Kuo

Illustrator Julia Kuo achieves all this with digitally-colored pen drawings—inspired by her own memories of growing up in Taipei and visiting Tokyo—and the result is absolutely stunning. The pictures have a saturated flatness that feels fresh, modern, and almost tactile. It strikes me how infrequently we see Asian life depicted in our American children’s books. If this book doesn’t spark an interest in traveling to East Asia (or collecting contemporary Japanese art) I don’t know what will. Start saving your pennies.

"The Sound of Silence" by Katrina Goldsaito & Julia Kuo

Kuo’s illustrations may be realistic, but there is also something sacred at work here. It’s as if the grit and grime of everyday life is lifted, leaving behind purely beauty and marvel. One might also say that the pictures themselves transcend the very sounds that they showcase, much like young Yoshio is attempting to do.


Our protagonist continues to strike out in his quest to identify the sound of silence. At bedtime he falls asleep while straining to hear the quiet, and he wakes in the morning to the sound of barking dogs. He decides to arrive early at school and sit in his empty classroom. And it is there that he finally hears the ma. Only he doesn’t hear it in the emptiness of the room, as we might be expecting. He hears it in the book that he’s reading, in the middle of a page, at a part that he loves so much, it makes him momentarily forget his surroundings.

No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo, no kotos being tuned. In that short moment, Yoshio couldn’t even hear the sound of his own breath.

Everything felt still inside him.
Peaceful, like the garden after it snowed.
Like feather-stuffed futons drying in the sun.

"The Sound of Silence" by Katrina Goldsaito & Julia Kuo

Be still my heart! Are you getting this? He hears the silence IN A BOOK. The epiphany comes WHILE HE IS READING. (Now you see why I had to pick this book as my favorite.) What a powerful message for our children to hear: a correlation between reading and inner peace, between reading and mindfulness. Losing ourselves in a book allows us to transcend the scuffle of everyday life at the same time that it brings us squarely back to ourselves. It is no wonder that, for me, reading aloud to my children has always been the surest way to tune out everything else and embrace what matters.

"The Sound of Silence" by Katrina Goldsaito & Julia Kuo

Yet, for all its accolades on the subject of reading, The Sound of Silence is ultimately concerned with a broader message. In the moment that follows Yoshio’s mid-page pause, he realizes with astonishment that the sound of silence “had been there all along,” in each one of the encounters leading to this one.

It had been there between the thumps of his boots when he ran; when the wind stopped for just a moment in the bamboo grove; at the end of his family’s meal, when everyone was happy and full; after the water finished draining from his bath; before the koto player’s music began—and hovering in the air, right after it ended.

It was between and underneath every sound.

And it had been there all along.

"The Sound of Silence" by Katrina Goldsaito & Julia Kuo

(Notice how, as soon as the boy stops engaging with the chaos around him, all the colors except those on Yoshio fade into muted greys and browns, an artistic choice which is echoed on the extraordinary wrap-around cover illustration as well.)

Yesterday, I finally shared this book with Emily. I had purchased it weeks ago, but somehow it hadn’t seemed like the right time. After we finished it, I asked her if she remembered how, just a few days earlier, she has hushed me on our walk so that I could listen to the stillness with her. “Do you think we were hearing the sound of silence, before our ears started picking up all those other sounds?” I asked.

My six year old—as six year olds are prone to do—amazed me with her response.

“I think if you’re quiet all the time, you don’t notice the sound of silence. But If you’re loud and you pause, then you hear it.”

Yes, we must heed the pauses.

Our family is anything but quiet. My son seems only to speak at a decibel reserved for Shakespearean actors. My daughter sings aloud her inner dialogue as she moves from one activity to the next. Our old house creaks and moans so much at night, I wonder how it can still be standing.

And yet, I have recently begun listening for the sound of silence that lies “between and underneath” this cacophony that is my life. I am starting to see that this is an effort worth undertaking.

During this holiday season—and in the year that follows—my wish for all of us is that we occasionally hear the silence at the top of our inhalations. That we heed the pause between the verses of carolers and the shouts of protesters, the stillness between the crunch of leaves and the scrape of the snow shovel. And that, when we’re lucky enough to hear it, that we relish this ma—before moving on to embrace the symphony around us.

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Book published by Little, Brown and Company. All opinions are my own. affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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