Sylvia & Aki by Winifred Conkling, 160 pp, RL 4
Sylvia & Aki
Purchased from Barnes & Noble
While researching Mendez v. Westminster School Board, the first case (seven years ahead of Brown v. Board of Education) to determine that school segregation itself is unconstitutional and violates the 14th Amendment, and reading Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fight for Desegregation, the superb non-fiction picture book by Duncan Tonatiuh, I learned that the forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII played an important role in this story. The Mendez family's move to Westminster was occasioned by the leasing of a farm owned by the Munemitsus, a Japanese American family. Masako Munemitsu and her twin daughters, Aki and Kazuko, were sent to Poston Internment Camp. Aki's father, Seima Munemitsu, declared a prisoner of war, was incarcerated in Santa Fe, New Mexico, separated from his family for three years. Brothers Tad and Seilo It is amazing to me to think that, during WWII, two girls, both of whom experienced devastating forms of segregation and prejudice, crossed paths. Having interviewed both women in 2005, Conkling takes the incredible childhood experiences of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu and weaves them into a short novel that is highly accessible and deeply interesting.
Starting with Sylvia in 1941, Conkling alternates chapters and points of view. Moving to the Munemitsu farm in Westminster from nearby Santa Ana, Sylvia quickly realizes that she is now living in the room of a girl around her own age when she discovers a school picture and a beautiful Japanese doll tucked away in the closet. Naming her Keiko, Sylvia places her next to her Mexican doll, Carmencita. At the same time, the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor and Aki is experiencing a growing distrust for and hatred of Japanese Americans in her community. Soon, the Munemitsus are being relocated and imprisoned, their family separated. As Aki is recovering from measles and her brother is struggling to fill out the Application for Leave Clearance form, a means to measure the loyalty of (young male) Japanese Americans interred in camps while also registering them for the military. Listening as her brother fumes, "I'm imprisoned in this camp, being denied my rights as a U.S. citizen, and at the same time I'm being asked to deny my loyalty to any other group. What am I supposed to do?" Aki feels sad for her brother and, "torn in two herself. No longer fully American, yet not Japanese, either. Not quite a prisoner, not quite free. She felt lost in the desert, wandering between a past that was gone and a future that stretched before her, barren as the land surrounding them."
As Aki and her family struggle, Sylvia's father, Gonzalo Mendez, takes on the Westminster school district when he learns that his children will have to attend Hoover Elementary, "the Mexican school," that is rundown and at the edge of a cow pasture, surrounded by electric fences and swarmed by flies. As the fight escalates and Gonzalo spends more time away from the farm, Felícitas, Sylvia's mother, takes on the work load. Mendez v. Westminster School District went to court in 1945, with (as I learned from Tonatiuh's book) Thurgood Marshall providing friend-of-the-court-briefs and governor, at the time Earl Warren, signing the law that said that all children were allowed to go to school together in 1947 after the Mendez family won the appeal against them. Earl Warren went on to become a Supreme Court Justice and the chief justice presiding over Brown v. Board of Education.
Conkling wraps up Sylvia & Aki in a way that will be very satisfying to young (and old) readers. While the girls meet earlier in the story when Sylvia accompanies her father on the 250 mile drive to deliver their rent payment to the Munemitsus, they are reunited for a time when they drive the Munemitsus home after being released from Poston, both families living together on the farm for a time. The book ends with an epilogue, visiting Sylvia in 1955 as she is graduating from high school. As the class valedictorian speaks to the audience about an important ruling by the supreme court one year earlier, granting, "unparalleled opportunity for students of every race and color," Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Sylvia reflects on her father's fight for his family and how he helped make Brown happen.
Excellent back matter starts with a note about the Munemitsu family and their legacy. While Japanese Americans lost an estimated $200 million when they were forced into camps, Aki's father continued to believe in the American Dream. Returning to his farm, he helped other Japanese American families get back on their feet, giving them a place to live, helping them save money and start over. The Orange County Department of Education has a fantastic podcast, Deeper Learning, that devotes one episode to Sylvia Mendez and Mendez v. Westminster School District of Orange County and another to Aki and her family's resilience after relocation. It was in this interview that I learned more about Mr. Monroe, the Munemitsu's banker from Garden Grove. Mr. Monroe helped them become property owners, putting the land in the name of twelve-year-old Tad, an American citizen who could read and write in English. He then helped the Munemitsus keep their land when they were forced to relocate, arranging to lease it to the Mendez family. Further reading and a bibliography round out this important book.