The Last Cherry Blossom – WWII Japan for kids

I’m an adult, but recently I enjoyed reading a middle-grade historical fiction book by Twitter friend Kathleen Burkinshaw. The Last Cherry Blossom is based closely on her mother’s stories of WWII and surviving the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. These days, whenever I search Amazon for “Cherry Blossoms” to find my mother’s memoir, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, up pops The Last Cherry Blossom, first on the list, and that’s how I discovered Kathleen on Twitter.

Few memoirs have been written by Japanese civilians who survived WWII, which is why I published my mother’s story way back then. They are reticent to tell their stories, even to family. The past is over and nightmares are best kept in the dark. I appreciate the courage of Kathleen’s mother to tell such painful stories. Kathleen also decided to write for middle-grade kids, so they could easily learn about this history and to see that “the enemy is not so different from ourselves.” The effects of the bomb are told gently enough to be suitable for fourth-fifth grade and up, with the possible exception of a couple brief descriptions of horrifically affected people, but even young readers need to get the idea of how awful this was.

Last Cherry BlossomI like how the first page of each chapter features a piece of actual propaganda or news headline. Most people don’t realize the propaganda that went on in Japan, how the media was censored and bad news hidden, how children were indoctrinated in school. Like in Germany. Disagreeing could make you disappear in the night. The Last Cherry Blossom mentions this.

My surprise was that Yuriko’s family was so outwardly loving. My mother’s biggest regret in life was never being able to hug her father or tell him she loved him – it was simply not done, which was normal for that time. You bowed to show respect and love was only shown by work done for others. Overall, The Last Cherry Blossom is a sweet story of culture, family dynamics (including an intriguing family secret), the tragedy we know will come, and a ray of hope. A lot is going on in this book besides war, and for several reasons it is a story each generation needs to hear.

November is Family Stories Month and National Lifewriting Month. Will you be working to somehow save your family’s history?

*Kathleen’s blog recently featured a beautiful post about the International Friendship Bell in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town “born of war” to support the Oak Ridge National Laboratory which secretly produced enriched uranium for the atomic bombs.

Secret City and its Song, Part 3


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Memoir Voice: Keeping the ghost out of ghostwriting

Are you writing or editing someone else’s memoir? I am celebrating after finishing the difficult editing of an ESOL memoir. ESOL means English as Second or Other Language, and in this case it might be a fourth language out of five. This is an international memoir featuring words and phrases in all five of those languages. My job was to make the sentences understandable and flow well but retain the writer’s voice (also making sure all the foreign spellings and the geography was correct). I want his family to hear HIM speaking and not me. If you are writing your own memoir, you want to retain your own voice and not pretend to be somebody you’re not. Don’t model your speech and writing style after your favorite author—your family wants to hear you, not that author or some stranger telling your story.

How did I keep this person’s ESOL voice? How did I keep my Japanese mother’s voice in her Cherry Blossoms in Twilight memoir? How do I keep simple or broken English and not make a caricature or stereotype? How much dialect can you add before it becomes difficult to read? (Have you ever read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God?)

People have their ways of speaking. My mother would say, “She would say to me, ….” rather than “She would say” or “She would tell me,” and she spoke in simple sentences. The ESOL author often used a series of adjectives to describe something and had favorite words and phrases, some of which I had to delete to keep from being too repetitious or overwhelming. His sentences (and my mother’s) are not always perfectly structured. In cases of strong dialect (or very broken English), there is no need to keep every instance of cultural speech, idiosyncrasy or brokenness, but have enough to give flavor – pick the ones you want to use.

Perhaps the biggest compliment for me as a memoir ghostwriter/editor is to hear people say, “I can hear her speaking!” or “It’s like we’re sitting on the porch talking!” Well, also, “I couldn’t put the book down!”


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Seiwa-en Japanese Garden and a WWII Japanese Internment Memoir

Last weekend was our big annual Japanese Festival, where our small but mighty Japanese community and our many friends work together to showcase Japanese cultural traditions and talents. It’s impressive. The Missouri Botanical Garden has the largest Japanese garden in the US and hosts this festival—one of the biggest Japanese festivals in the nation. Not bad for a mid-sized city in flyover country. St. Louis is where I found half my heritage, and I enjoy it very much.


This beautiful, 14-acre Japanese garden, Seiwa-en, the “garden of pure, clear harmony and peace, exists thanks to the Missouri Botanical Garden’s support of local Japanese Americans who had been imprisoned in “camps” during WWII. Many came from the Rohwer and Jerome, Arkansas, internment camps. Some came as college students, escaping internment by being accepted to local universities. In 1972, our Japanese American Citizens League approached Dr. Peter Raven, the garden’s director then, about creating a Japanese garden in appreciation for the welcome St. Louis gave to the Japanese Americans. With Dr. Raven’s and the JACL’s enthusiasm, in 1977 the Japanese Garden, by landscape architect Koichi Kawana, was dedicated.

My most elderly friend was interned in Rohwer, Arkansas, as a 20-something young woman who had been born in the US. Bilingual, she was picked to be a block manager, meaning the manager of a block of internment housing units who would be a liaison between the imprisoned and the camp administrators. She was the only woman manager. She had stories. She was married in camp and was shipped to the Tule Lake camp with her new husband. After the Japanese surrender, she followed her Japanese citizen husband to his family home near Hiroshima, taking their baby boy. Then she really had stories.

Back in 2010 a couple of us interviewed our friend for many fascinating hours, and I created a lengthy, edited video of her telling her life stories. A few years ago, our friend moved away to live near her son. This year, “Janet’s” memoir, The Block Manager: a true story of love in the midst of Japanese internment, was published, ghost-written by a close friend of Janet’s whom I did not know. The book release event was at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

BlockManagerThe Block Manager is a beautifully written, intimate story of life in the camps and in war-torn Japan. Janet and her husband and son were allowed to return to the US after 7 years of suffering and near death. Janet had to pay a lawyer to regain the US citizenship she was made to believe she had lost. They came to St. Louis where Janet’s parents had re-created a life after being released from Rohwer with nothing but some train fare. They were members of the Japanese American Citizens League. Janet’s story is a history of both the US and Japan that should never be forgotten. The story behind Seiwa-en, the garden of pure, clear harmony and peace, should not be forgotten.





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