Parents with young children: please take caution in sharing this book with your youngest readers. Although the narrator is “only a 10-year-old boy,” what he witnesses, endures, and survives during the titular ‘three years and eight months’ of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II is brutal, horrific, and inhumane. As in all wars, women, the elderly, and children always suffer most.
Choi lives with his widowed mother and his Uncle Kim in a “rundown apartment building in crowded Hong Kong.” Dismissed from school early one day, he watches his mother dragged away by Japanese soldiers. On Christmas, 1941, Japan takes official control of the island; for its citizens, occupation means destruction, starvation, imprisonment, and death.
Up in the mountains searching for firewood, Choi meets Taylor, the hapa son of Uncle Kim’s friend; Taylor’s American mother went to visit her California family and has been unable to return to Hong Kong since Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The two boys trade wood for food when they can, which leads them to meet a kind Japanese soldier who teaches them enough Japanese to give them a job at the military station. The boys’ entry there provides access to information, food, and even medical supplies they can pass on to Uncle Kim …
Award-winning author and publisher Icy Smith – whose last book detailed war’s atrocities in Half Spoon of Rice – clearly channels her own family background here. Her opening dedication is a harrowing warning: “This book is dedicated to my father, uncle, and grandmother, who lived the reality of Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation. My uncle was forced to work for the Japanese military and transported prisoners to death camps. … My father was a slave boy who witnessed the Japanese brutalities … My grandmother was victimized by Japanese soldiers for three long years and became a nun after the end of World War II.” Hopefully, the single, kind ‘enemy’ soldier was also a part of Smith’s ancestral past. Decades later, Smith bears witness, first with personal story, then with “Remembering History” at book’s end with dates, facts, numbers, and period photos.
As much as Smith’s words capture this true story, Jennifer Kindert‘s illustrations vividly enhance the chilling experience. Kindert, a Texas-based Thai adoptee of Swedish parents, has a lush style that fills each page with careful, intimate details which bring readers immediately into each scene: the distant worried look of a young mother with two small children she carries balanced in a basket, the treasures local residents have brought the Japanese troops to trade for a few cups of rice, the upturned face of an imprisoned woman momentarily distracted from her heavy labor, the portrait of Emperor Hirohito on the wall with his head symbolically truncated from view as a group of soldiers initially hear the news of the first atomic bombing. Every picture reveals and intensifies both the horror and the humanity.
Too much of our history is filled with tragedy… perhaps bearing witness, even in childhood, is one way to combat the nightmarish repetition. Hope springs eternal, right?
Readers: Children (with caution), Middle Grade