Today – December 7, 2012 – is the 71st anniversary of the “date which will live in infamy,” as named by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in describing the assault on the Pearl Harbor Naval Base and launching the United States into World War II. That the attackers were Japanese would eventually lead to Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 which imprisoned some 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent.
In less than a hundred pages, Lauren Tarshis manages to tell a riveting story and populate the slim title (perfectly proportioned for even the most hesitant middle grade readers!) with resonating historical and sociological content. Danny and his single mother are new residents of Pearl City, Hawai’i, where his mother works as a nurse at Hickam Air Force Base in Pearl Harbor; she’s thankful to be in “the most beautiful place on earth,” while Danny just wishes they could go back to their old New York City apartment and be with his best friend Finn. Even as Danny’s mother is adamant that this “fresh start” will keep her son “away from danger and trouble,” Danny is plotting a stowaway journey home. And then the bombs fall: Danny’s plans for escape turn into a fight for survival, not just for himself but for the friends he has begun to make, including the brave officer trying too hard to win his mother’s affections, and his Japanese American neighbors whose irresistible little boy Aki is already devotedly attached to Danny.
As the author behind Scholastic’s I Survived series – “[e]ach … tells a terrifying and thrilling story from history, through the eyes of a boy who lived to tell the tale,” her website explains – Tarshis must be an incredibly quick study, producing what seems to be two titles a year highlighting diverse historical moments. If Pearl Harbor, the fourth in seven titles thus far, is any indication, Tarshis is especially thorough. Into the heart-thumping survival story that lasts some 48 hours (with a final Christmas Day chapter that serves almost as an epilogue), Tarshis weaves in gang influence within the FBI, questions of identity, anti-Japanese backlash and fear, Japanese American imprisonment without just cause, a good old love story, and a young boy’s coming-of-age from numbness to fear to feeling. For the further curious, Tarshis’ after-story appendix is filled with historical notes, a tucked-in update on Danny’s mom and her officer, a detailed time line, and resources to find out more (including a few titles detailing true stories of real Pearl Harbor children).
Of course when handing this book to your reluctant reader, he or she doesn’t need to know anything more than this is just a really good story. Enough said!
Readers: Middle Grade