When Alex finished Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban and told me that I “HAD to read it,” he also mentioned that he had stayed up half the night just to finish reading it. We are usually pretty strict about bedtime, but since it was the long weekend and he didn’t have school, I let that comment slide. Besides, he was talking so enthusiastically about the book that I didn’t want to interrupt him!Paper Wishes tells the story of a young girl named Manami living in the United States during the 1940s. Manami is happily living on the shores of Bainbridge Island, Washington, when she and her family are forced to move to a Japanese-American prison camp.
When she learns that her family is planning to leave her dog Yujiin behind, Manami tries to bring him with her. She hides Yujiin under her coat, and sneaks him onto the ferry taking them off the island. When they arrive at the mainland, however, an American soldier discovers Yujiin and makes Manami leave him behind.
After traveling for two days by train, they arrive at the camp. The soldiers have told them that it will be “a village,” but Manami’s mother recognizes it for what it is: “‘It is a prison,’ she says.”
It is desolate. It is ugly. There are no trees, no water, nothing green. It is a desert.
I soon discover that if I crouch down low with my eyes next to the ground, I can pretend that the dirt looks like sand here.
If I stand tall with my feet bare, I can pretend the dirt feels like sand here.
But when I open my mouth to speak, the dirt no longer feels like sand. It sticks to my lips and tongue like red mud. It coats my throat so that I cannot speak.
I think this is what has happened to me.
I wish the dirt would cloud my eyes, too, so that I would not see this place that is and is not my home without Yujiin.
Manami withdraws from interacting with others, unable to speak for months. Through a series of events, Manami gets the idea that she can deliver messages by sending them on the wind. She decides to send messages (her “paper wishes”) to Yujiin every day until he joins her at the camp. Paper Wishes tracks Manami’s journey of healing, as well as her family’s adjustment to life in the prison camp and life without Yujiin.
Ms. Sepahban’s decision to write Paper Wishes in first person narrative makes it particularly powerful—I’m sure even more so for middle-school-aged kids like Alex. Instead of reading about a prison camp, we lived in the prison camp through Manami. We tasted the red mud coating her lips and tongue, and felt her fear every time an adult or the Warden called upon her to speak.
This compelling book introduced Alex to aspects of war that he and I had not yet had an opportunity to discuss—in particular, the prison camps, and the idea that people might be vilified simply because of where they or their ancestors were born. We had an insightful discussion about racism and why America should never let such a thing as the prison camps happen again. America is better than that.
I am grateful to Ms. Sepahban not only for the wonderful story, but also for this natural opening for the mini-history lesson and mini-humanity lesson with Alex.
Have you read any great books lately?