Sunday, May 15, 2016

551 (2016 #17). Heart of a Champion

by Ellen Schwartz

The internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II forms the backdrop to this middle-grade novel that's more about family and perseverance.

Nine-year-old Kenny (Kenjo) Sakamoto lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with his father, a  World War I veteran who owns a camera shop, his homemaker mother (the only family member not born in Canada), a younger sister, Sally, and an older brother, 16-year-old Mickey (Mitsuo), a baseball star. Mickey plays for the Vancouver Asahi, a (real) Japanese-Canadian baseball team that won the Pacific Northwest League championship from 1937 through 1941.  Kenny emulates his older brother, but a supposed heart murmur forces him to pursue his dream to play baseball in secret.

The book starts in early September 1941, just after the Asahi win their last championship.  Kenny gets into a fight in school when he defends his classmate Susana when she is called a Kraut by another boy.  Susana and her family, best friends with the Sakamotos, are Jewish, and fled Germany when the Nazis took over.  The parallels will be obvious to most readers.  Already, Canadian citizens of Japanese descent have to carry identity cards.

Everything changes for the Sakamotos when Japan bombs Pearl Harbor.  Keith, the same boy who fought Kenny earlier calls him a dirty Jap, and teacher Miss Morfitt uses the incident as an opportunity to show how nearly all the Japanese students in the class were born in Canada, just as nearly all of the the non-Japanese students were, except for Susana - and Keith (born in Ireland).  But this is followed by the closure of Kenny's Japanese language school and Sally's odori dancing school.

Further humiliations, such as registration as an enemy alien, turning off the light in the World War I Japanese Canadian memorial, and a curfew, lead to more serious repercussions.  Kenny's father must close his business, as no one of Japanese descent can possess a car, camera, radio equipment, or firearms.  Soon after, he is sent to a work camp, and later, the rest of the family into internment.

Conditions at the camp are dismal, but Kenny discovers strengths he didn't know he had.  With the support of a sympathetic Mountie, he takes on a project that ultimately unites the exiles.

Other books for children have been written on this subject (baseball in the internment camps), but author Ellen Schwartz has created characters the reader will really care about.  The book is appropriately aimed at grades 4-6, ages 9-12.

© Amanda Pape - 2016

[I received a hardbound copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be added to my university library's collection.]

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