I received this book for free from the publisher, Sky Pony Press, in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw
Release date: August 2nd, 2016
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Genre: Middle grade, historical fiction
Source: Sky Pony Press
Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden fom its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.
This book was beautiful and devastating and heartbreaking…it made me feel so many emotions all at once. Earlier this year I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan and alongside my 9th grade students learned about the atomic bomb that destroyed the city and killed so many of its people during the Second World War. We were fortunate enough to speak with a survivor. For many of my students all of this was new information. Their knowledge of the atomic bomb was limited and their understanding of the Japanese point of view even more so. Some of them had read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes in elementary school, but didn’t really make the connection to just how devastating or world changing the bomb had been. That is why books like The Last Cherry Blossom are extremely important.
When Sky Pony Press asked if I would like to review this book, I was automatically intrigued. It’s advertised as a piece of historical fiction, but it is inspired by the author’s mother, a survivor of the bomb. Prior to writing the novel, the author had spoken widely to students about the bombing of Hiroshima, and her ability to instruct and connect with young people is quite evident in the story.
The Last Cherry Blossom begins a year before the bombing. I appreciated this because it allows the reader to connect with the characters. So much of what has been published in the past has not been from the Japanese point of view. Here, the reader is shown just how similar they were to their American counterparts. The main character, Yuriko, attends school, struggles with her assignments, gossips about boys and listens to jazz records with her best friend. These normal day-to-day activities take place with fear and destruction in the back of their minds. War and loss is all around them. Soldiers are increasingly not returning from the war. The US had firebombed Tokyo and took the island of Okinawa. It was heartbreaking to read how much Yuriko and her family had tried to hang onto their way of life and live as normally as possible.
While reading you know that the atomic bomb is going to destroy Yuriko’s life, but it was extremely difficult to read. It’s easy to love and care deeply about Yuriko, her family and best friend. Her narration is honest and full of childhood discovery. Seeing the fallout of the atomic bomb through her eyes made my heartache. What I found important was that this book discusses life after the bomb. The lack of supplies and shelter, the illnesses and emotional impact. Books that I have previously read haven’t discussed these topics and I found it extremely important.
My sole issue with the book was how it over explained things such as Japanese words and historical events. I totally understand why the author did it. The book is aimed at a middle grade audience who have probably not been exposed to Japanese words, history or culture before. However, for me, it was repetitive and unnecessary. Some conversations read as awkward or unrealistic, especially between two friends who had known each other for years.
I have placed my copy of The Last Cherry Blossom in my classroom library. It truly is a story that all young people should read. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki should never be forgotten and this book helps keep the memory of the people affected alive in the hearts of those in the present.