Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu's stunning debut novel, Somewhere Among, will take older readers back in time and introduce new readers to an important moment in history: September 11, 2001.
Written in poetic form, this middle grade novel takes young readers to Japan and into the life of Ema. As an eleven-year-old, Ema's character observes the atrocities of the world with a critical mind and a heart that wishes for peace: in her home, in her family, in her world. This wish, and others, are hung from bamboo during Tanabata, the Japanese star festival. And through this, it is clear that the heart of this novel is about wishes and hopes for the future.
Ema and her pregnant mother move in with her father's parents, and like most families, hers is complicated. With a strict grandmother, an empathetic grandfather, and a mother who fears for her unborn baby, Ema is forced to transition into a new school and a new life, all while the world changes.
September 11, 2001, Ema is awakened by horrific things on the news. Though I was slightly younger than Ema when the towers fell, I, too, remembered watching the clouds of smoke, the people screaming, and the same kind of horror from a television in my fourth grade classroom. What Ema has that I did not, is a spectacular author who imbues this novel with echoes of the pain of Pearl Harbor, and the distinction between a world of peace and a world of terror. Though readers will not experience 9/11 from the United States in this novel, the way the rest of the world deals with this moment in time is just as interesting. And given the fact that Ema has connections to Japanese culture, and grandparents from the US, her viewpoint is immense and integral to the success of this story.
While 9/11 does not fill every page of this book--some days are spent at school or in the garden or looking up at the stars-- the tremors of this terrifying time can be felt on every page. With the promise of a new sibling, it is as if the author has put all of the hopes and dreams for the world after 9/11's terrorist attacks in the image of one new baby. And of course this is such a beautiful way to think about how worlds have had to be rebuilt after devastation, after wars; bereavement and sorrow giving birth to better times ahead.
Throughout this novel, there are many Japanese words and customs introduced, however, these things never feel confusing. If anything, readers will learn so much more about the Japanese culture in a way that feels organic and important to the story. It is the way Ema wishes on a blue slip of paper, the way they try to remember New Year's dreams amongst Christmas trees and Beatles songs, that we truly see her "somewhere among" Japan and America.
With exquisite details and heartfelt sentiments, this world is one that is full of love and light amidst sorrow and darkness. It is true that the most beautiful observations often come from children; unclouded by past hate or a life filled with hurt. Ema's observations are beautiful, even when they are enough to break hearts. And this book is heartbreaking. But from the rubble of Ema's wishes and the fallen towers, readers will see the rebuilding of hope in just one paper crane, the forgiveness of school squabbles, the future hope of new life, the profundity of glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars on the darkest of nights. All of this fills the lyrical pages of Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu's debut novel.
Perfect for both parents and children, Somewhere Among will transport readers to a beautiful culture during a devastating time in history where they can see just how much people and whole worlds are changed.