book review: Sylvia and Aki

 title: Sylvia and Aki

author: Winifred Conkling

date: Tricycle Press, July 2011

main characters: Aki Munemitsu and Sylvia Mendez

MG historical fiction

Several years ago, when I was still teaching US History, I came across an article in Teaching Tolerance about  Mendez vs. Westminster School District. I would often tell people about the Latino case in California that paved the way for Brown vs. Board of Education. It’s a case that gets so little attention, but it probably helped solidify Earl Warren’s opinion on segregation and led to successful desegregation suits in other western states. So, needless to say, I was excited to hear about a MG book that would give this case a little more notoriety.

Actually, Sylvia and Aki is about two young girls who have one house in common. Aki’s family loses their home when they are sent to a relocation camp after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Sylvia’s family moves into the home. In chapters told in alternating voices, we learn that Japanese Americans could attend any school, but that they would lose their possessions after the attack. “Mexicans” could only attend “Mexican” schools. Sylvia’s father wants his children to have an education that prepares them for high school, college and whatever life may bring and he knows they will not get this in segregated schools. He eventually files a lawsuit to integrate the schools. On one of his visits to take rent payment to the Munemitsus at the camp, he takes Sylvia. The two girls meet and eventually become lifelong friends.

I like that Conkling writes a story that makes this information accessible to young readers. She personalizes the discrimination of the time in a way that today’s readers will be able to relate to and they are able to understand the importance of the historic events. While I did not do exhaustive research, I did hunt around for a while and found very little information documenting the relationship between Sylvia and Aki. I wish this had been a nonfiction book that did just that. This oddest of relationships (given the era in which it developed) speaks to the Americanization of us all and it is a story worth telling.

The shortcomings here were the shortcomings I too often find in MG fiction: little character development and sparse attention to setting. Nonetheless, Conkling takes two historic events which could easily overwhelm readers (of any age) on their own and successfully frames them within the context of these young girl’s lives. The Japanese relocation and the desegregation of schools for Mexican students shows America at its worst, but Sylvia and Aki manage to bring the humanity to this era.

Listen to Sylvia and her sister discuss this case with each other at StoryCorps.

I purchased this book.

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