Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling

Sylvia & Aki9781582463452_p0_v1_s260x420Sylvia & Aki: Friendship Knows No Barriers

Winifred Conkling, Author

Tricycle Press, Random House imprint, Fiction, 2011

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes:  Race Relations, Segregation in Education, Japanese American Relocations, Mexican Americans, Friendship

Synopsis:  Two third-grade students are caught up in the fear that engulfed our country during WW II.  Aki Munemitsu and her family are Japanese American citizens who own an asparagus farm in Westminster, CA.  When war breaks out they are sent to an internment camp in Poston, AZ.  Sylvia Mendez and her family rent the home vacated by Aki’s family and run the farm.  Sylvia discovers a Japanese doll hidden in the back of  her closet and wonders about the girl who owns it and her life in the camp.  Sylvia is excited about attending Westminster School, until she is not allowed to enroll in the town school and told that she must attend the run-down Mexican School across town.  Like Aki, Sylvia faces a fear of a different kind —  the fear of racial integration in America.  Both girls face discrimination.  Sylvia and her father challenge the school district in California court system.  Their landmark case eventually ends school segregation nationally.

Why I like this book:  This is an important story to tell because of the fear that pervaded our country during WW II and the social injustices that occurred.  Winifred Conkling has written a touching and true story about the lives of two girls who question their identities as Americans, their own self-worth and come to grips with the prejudices of the country they love and call home.  The author writes their story in alternating chapters, which fit together very nicely and focus on race relations in America at that time.  Both girls were strong, determined, brave and stood up for what they believed.  This is a great discussion book for the classroom.

The story of Sylvia and Aki fits in nicely with the theme of International Day of the Girl Child on October 11 which is a day “to recognize girls’ rights and the unique  challenges girls face around the world.”  Sylvia challenged the California court system laws on segregation. I will review a picture book related to this special day on Friday.

Resources:  The author opens  with a note about word choice and the terms used in the 1940s.  There is a lengthy afterword about the Mendez and Munemitsu families, and a discussion about segregation in America.  The girls are close friends today.  Please visit Winifred Conkling at her website.  There is a teacher’s guide for the book.  Another important discussion would be about girl power.  Encourage students to talk about what girls can do to help each other locally and globally.  Talk about the differences in education for girls in first and third worlds.