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1001 Cranes by Naomi Hirahara

December 24, 2008
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We each had an opportunity to read Naomi Hirahara’s 1001 Cranes and wanted to take some time to discuss it.  The three of us are interested in depictions of Asian Americans in YA Literature and sometimes it helps us to digest our thoughts by doing a mini-roundtable discussion.  Although we’re all in the same locale, we usually do blog-related things via email so if it doesn’t sound like a real discussion, it technically was not.  Basically I emailed Trisha and Jolene some questions.  Trisha responded first, Jolene second, and finally I added my two cents.

1) Do you think the book had a decent representation of a Japanese American teen?

Trisha: Welllll, she didn’t strike me as inauthentic.

I guess I’m wondering what a “decent representation” would be. Not offensive? Actually seems like she could be a real Japanese American person? In both cases, I’d say yes. At the same time, though, Angela and her parents are very assimilated and the family’s been American for several generations. We’ve talked before about how there’s no one Asian American “experience,” and for me, this book really emphasizes that point, more so than other books might have because I’m the same ethnicity as the protagonist. I can’t relate to growing up in California, but I could relate to being assimilated while retaining aspects of Japanese culture.

Jolene: I agree with Trisha in the defining what “a decent representation of a Japanese American teen” would be. I don’t think the character would be inauthentic since the author is Japanese American and would know what it’s like to be a Japanese American teen growing up in California.

Gayle: As far as being representative of a teen, I sometimes think that teen characters in YA literature are too articulate and self-aware.  This is a personal take because when I was a teen, I was pretty clueless.  Angela is authentic to me because she doesn’t know what she wants and is trying different things when her world is in flux.  As far as her cultural identity, it’s pretty authentic. The descriptions of her family seem pretty dead on and I can almost identify Japanese American people I know with Hirahara’s depictions.

2) Do you think YAs will read this book?

Trisha: I think some tweens will. It’s too middle grade to appeal to a teen audience. Or my teens, anyway, since the only MG books that do well in my YA section are fantasies.

Jolene: I agree that maybe some YAs might read the book if it’s on their AR list. The writing style would most appeal to middle graders or even upper reading level fifth graders.

Gayle: YAs, teens, and adults will read this.  I already know of a few precocious teens who have a better Asian American reading repertoire than myself.  I can also see it on a reading list.  I think teachers who are interested in teaching multiculturalism will find this a good teaching tool.

3) Is there stereotyping in the book?  If so, what are your impressions?

Trisha: I thought it was kind of…well, not funny, exactly…but the fact that the neighbor’s two sons both married haole women? Kind of amused me.

I did like the fact that there were both Buddhist and Christian AJA characters.

And as I said before, I really liked how assimilated Angela was, yet at the same time, things like kamaboko and words like monku were familiar to her. In that way, she didn’t feel like a stereotypical Asian American character. I guess it’s partly that the story is set over the course of a summer, not the school year– You know what, I’ll stop now before this turns into a rant about how not all Asian American parents put lots of academic pressure on their kids.

As far as other types of stereotyping, my answer is the same as The Fold. I don’t recall any, but it’s been a couple of months since I read the book.

Jolene: I don’t recall much stereotyping, except for the Asian grandparents owning a flower shop and folding cranes. But it could just be a cultural thing at least the grandparents didn’t own a dry cleaner or restaurant. Yeah I agree that Angela was assimilated in a realistic way. It wasn’t so overt that she had abandoned or rejected all traces of her heritage, but more natural in that she was accustomed to certain customs and traditions. At some points even making fun of her family for eating rice with everything including spaghetti.

Gayle: I didn’t feel like the story, characters, or situations were stereotypical of Asian Americans.  I did find the locale of the Angela’s grandparents’ house sort of obvious.  I chuckled when I read that they lived in Gardena.

The story was very slice of life and did not play into stereotypes.  Ethnic elements are weaved into the story enough so that it is obvious that the character is Japanese American but it was not a driving force of the plot.  Angela seems quite comfortable in her skin and not embarrassed of her ethnic heritage which I think is awesome.

Other thoughts:

Trisha: Overall, I thought 1001 Cranes was a pretty decent book. Nothing I’d rave about, but not something I’d complain about, either. Except for one thing. I wish there’d been a glossary or something to translate Japanese terms, because everytime a Japanese word or phrase was defined by Angela, the narration seemed to switch from a twelve-year-old girl to that of a middle-aged narrator of women’s fiction, then back to a girl. I can understand why people unfamiliar with Japanese food/phrases would need things translated, but (and maybe this is a growing up Japanese American in Hawaii thing) when you were twelve, were you able to define things the way Angela did? It’s a fictional conceit, I know, but it kept bothering me whenever Angela talked about kamaboko or mochi and gave us a very grown-up explanation.  Here’s an example from page 5:

I’ve been to Grandma Michi and Gramp’s house twelve times.  I know this exact number because we got to Los Angeles once a year, during New Year’s, which is important for Japanese people.  My grandparents take us to the Buddhist temple near their house and we watch men use mallets to pound hot rice into this sticky goop they call mochi.  Then the women, some of them wearing nets and caps over their hair, take the hot goop into the kitchen and spread it out on a floured wooden board.  This next part is my favorite: we then tear the mochi with our fingers and make balls the size of eggs.  The elderly ladies, including Grandma Michi, sit at a special table where they spoon red beans (actually, they are more brown) into the middle of the mochi and form the rice goop around them so the beans are a surprise in the middle.  The red beans are called an, which sounds like when you open your mouth wide for the doctor.  I think they taste better than chocolate.  That’s why Gramps calls me An-jay instead of Angie.  I could eat an all day. (Hirahara, 5)

If it was me, I’d be all, “Mochi. You know, mochi? That Japanese thing…”

Jolene: Overall, I thought the book was a nice read and reminded me a little of Yamanaka’s writing without the heavy pidgin. (Could be because it was a coming of age story focused on adolescence and assimilation.)

Gayle: My overall impression is that 1001 Cranes is a safe read perfect for a middle grade reader transitioning into YA literature.  I can see it assigned for a multicultural literature class.  There’s enough to discuss yet it is not a book that needs to be discussed.  Also I have to applaud  the author for not dragging the whole story into a lesson about the Japanese American internment during World War II.  We need more stories about current Asian Americans and 1001 Cranes nicely helps to fill that gap.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ashley permalink
    January 21, 2009 5:01 am

    What is the genre of this book, is it adventure?

    • Gayle permalink*
      January 21, 2009 8:05 pm

      I’d consider 1001 Cranes to be realistic fiction.

  2. Lina permalink
    January 26, 2009 11:31 am

    Sounds like a decent read. And I agree with Gayle on the need for more modern representation of Asian Americans. I went through a series of books with Cambodian American protagonists and was pretty happy with what I found. Most centered around the effects of the Khmer Rouge era, but the books by Many Ly are quite contemporary focusing more on the the protagonist’s struggles with Cambodian culture and customs.

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