Flying the Dragon
Written by Natalie Dias Lorenzi
Charlesbridge, 2012, 240 pp.
This contemporary realistic novel focuses on the lives of two cousins: an American-born girl named Skye and a Japanese-born boy named Hiroshi. Skye loves soccer and dreams of becoming a member of the All-Star soccer team. Her father is Japanese but she has not explored her Japanese heritage or her Japanese-American identity. She eats American foods, mostly speaks English at home, and never visits Japan. Hiroshi lives in Japan and has not thought much about his uncle’s family living in Virginia, USA. He loves making and flying kites with his grandfather who is a professional kite maker, flyer, and fighter. Both of their lives drastically change when the grandfather becomes sick and the family decides to seek treatment in America. Neither Skye nor Hiroshi is happy with this change. Skye has to trade her All-Star soccer dreams for Japanese classes. Her parents want her to be more familiar with Japanese culture and language in order to develop a kinship with the Japanese side of her family and to help Hiroshi in his new life. Hiroshi has to give up an important kite championship in Japan in order to come to America. In Virginia, both cousins experience difficulties adjusting to new cultures, and they struggle with misunderstandings and prejudice caused by their cultural differences.
Natalie Dias Lorenzi provides gentle insight into human nature through the children’s experiences of a new culture and language told in their alternative voices. Looking at their cultural experiences through the lens of a continuum of intercultural learning (Fennes & Hapgood, 1996), a process of intercultural understanding including ethnocentrism, understanding, respect, change, and intercultural competence, is revealed. At first, Hiroshi experiences culture shock, homesickness, and frustration because of the cultural differences and language difficulties he faces in the U.S. Through her communication with him, Skye begins to pay more attention to her own identity. She shows some hesitation about accepting her Japanese identity because her classmates tease her for speaking Japanese with Hiroshi; as a result, she feels a sense of “otherness.” Although the cousins have difficulties, they also have shared experiences, such as their family history, flying a dragon kite that Hiroshi brings from Japan, and teaching and learning language with each other. These connections encourage them to understand and appreciate their cultures and each other.
This book addresses themes of cultural connection/disconnection and identity in thoughtful ways, but there are also issues of cultural authenticity to discuss due to culturally inauthentic and inaccurate portrayals:
•Skye’s father says, “Twelve years in America and I’ve forgotten how to eat [with chopsticks]” (p. 2). The story explains that he has sacrificed a great deal for his American family and has lost skills as a result, such as the ability to use chopsticks. As a Japanese cultural insider, I know that this is a problematic depiction. Twelve years is not a sufficiently long period of time to forget how to use chopsticks.
•Skye’s dad says that “Japanese people always smile in public, even if they’re sad or embarrassed” (p. 33). This is a very traditional and old-fashioned concept. It may mislead readers to believe that all Japanese individuals are still like that in present day Japan, which is no longer true.
•“Hiroshi picked up his fork. He looked from the spaghetti to his fork and back to the spaghetti again. How am I supposed to eat this? Hiroshi poked the pile of noodles. The spaghetti slipped and spilled down the front of his shirt” (p. 56). This passage shows how Hiroshi struggled with eating spaghetti with a fork, giving readers the impression that Japanese people do not know how to use forks. This is inaccurate because they do sometimes use forks and certainly know how to use them. It really depends on the foods being eaten: they eat spaghetti with a fork, soup with a spoon, and rice with chopsticks.
•“Hiroshi stood and grabbed another sushi roll” (p. 65). This book, as well as other books about Japan, frequently shows sushi as an ordinary food. I assume that authors use cultural icons like sushi to create a sense of exoticism around Japanese culture. However, overrepresentation of cultural icons, such as showing sushi without any other foods, may create stereotypical views, suggesting that Japanese people always eat sushi. In fact, for many Japanese people, sushi is not an ordinary food but a meal that they have on special days, such as birthday parties.
In the acknowledgements, Lorenz states that this story is culturally and linguistically accurate because her manuscript was verified by Japanese individuals. I agree with the linguistic accuracy but not the cultural accuracy. Some depictions of Japanese customs and ways of thinking are problematic and so may create bias and cultural misunderstandings for readers.
This middle-grade novel can be read alongside Hannah’s Winter (Kierin Meehan, 2009), a fictional novel about an Australian girl’s exploration of Japan and her cultural understandings, and The Language Inside (Holly Thompson, 2013), a story about an American girl raised in Japan. Also, picture books about Japanese culture and people such as Tokyo Friends (Betty Reynolds, 1999), The Wakame Gatherer (Holly Thompson & Kazumi Wilds, 2007), and I live in Tokyo (Mari Takabayashi, 2001) encourage readers to be aware of the authenticity and accuracy issues embedded in this novel, thereby enhancing their critical perspectives.
Natalie Dias Lorenzi is an elementary school teacher and librarian in the United States. She has had various international experiences such as living in Germany, Italy, and Japan and traveling to many other countries. This book has received many awards, such as the IRA Children’s and Young Adult Book Awards (Intermediate Fiction Honor Book, 2013). It was also included in the 2014–2015 Massachusetts Children’s Book Award Master List and the New York Public Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing (2012).
Junko Sakoi, University of Arizona
WOW Review, Volume VII, Issue 1 by World of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work at https://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/review/vii-1/