“Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky” by Sandra Dallas is a middle grade historical fiction novel set during World War II. It deals with the internment at that time of Japanese-Americans.
Dallas begins the story with a bang — Tomi, born in America, visits the local grocery store with her little brother to purchase some penny candy. When she sees a sign, “No Japs,” she quickly leaves, but not before her little brother is able to decipher the nasty words.
The action takes place shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Japanese-Americans were widely (and wrongly) suspected of being spies for Japan. Hiro, the little brother, is confused about why anyone would think they were spies. He tells his sister, “Heck, Tomi, we don’t even speak Japanese.”
She agrees. “…We say the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school, and we salute the flag. Pop always told us he and Mom were the best Americans because they chose to live in this country…” In fact, Tomi’s father has an American flag which he proudly raises each morning and lowers each evening. It resides in a carved box during the night.
When her father is arrested, the family is shocked and sure that the arrest is a mistake. The government believes he is a spy because of the fertilizer and gasoline that he has bought. He also has a radio, so he must, they think, have been sending messages to the Japanese. Little Hiro points out that the radio only works one way — to listen to — but that makes no difference to a very paranoid government.
Soon Tomi, her older brother, her younger brother, and their mother are relocated to a desolate hastily-built camp in Colorado.
Dallas is adept not only at providing relevant — sometimes shocking — historical information, but also at creating solid characters with whom readers will sympathize. Readers will also learn that those who came to America from Japan are called Issei (first generation American), and the law said that Issei couldn’t own land in America; nor were they allowed to become citizens. Tomi and others like her were called Nisei, or second generation Americans.
Dallas’ use of dialogue and description make the story come alive for students learning about the relocation camps. She doesn’t white-wash the events. Some characters, including Tomi at times, are bitter and angry. Others, like Tomi’s mother, learn to adapt and deal with the situation.
She also points out the difficulty that often ensued when the fathers returned to the family after a protracted absence. The mothers were forced to become self-sufficient in the absence of the men, and once someone is independent, it’s difficult to return to a subservient role.
The book is not only about history, it’s also about family and friendship. It’s about compassion and caring. And it’s about sticking up for what you believe in and doing your best in spite of difficult situations.
This would be a great book to use for Common Core State Standards because there is much that the book would bring to a discussion about history and about overcoming prejudice and bigotry. Dallas points out that it was only the Japanese who were sent to relocation camps — not German or Italian immigrants. Extensions for the study could include researching the relocation camps and discovering if reparations were ever given to those who suffered losses because of their unjust confinement.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Sleeping Bear Press, for review purposes.
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