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A Place to Belong
Table of Contents
About The Book
Five starred reviews!
“Another gift from Kadohata to her readers.” —Booklist (starred review)
A Japanese American family, reeling from their ill treatment in the Japanese imprisonment camps, gives up their American citizenship to move back to Hiroshima, unaware of the devastation wreaked by the atomic bomb in this piercing and all too relevant look at the aftermath of World War II by Newbery Medalist Cynthia Kadohata.
World War II has ended, but while America has won the war, twelve-year-old Hanako feels lost. To her, the world, and her world, seems irrevocably broken.
America, the only home she’s ever known, imprisoned then rejected her and her family—and thousands of other innocent Americans—because of their Japanese heritage, because Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Japan, the country they’ve been forced to move to, the country they hope will be the family’s saving grace, where they were supposed to start new and better lives, is in shambles because America dropped bombs of their own—one on Hiroshima unlike any other in history. And Hanako’s grandparents live in a small village just outside the ravaged city.
The country is starving, the black markets run rampant, and countless orphans beg for food on the streets, but how can Hanako help them when there is not even enough food for her own brother?
Hanako feels she could crack under the pressure, but just because something is broken doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. Cracks can make room for gold, her grandfather explains when he tells her about the tradition of kintsukuroi—fixing broken objects with gold lacquer, making them stronger and more beautiful than ever. As she struggles to adjust to find her place in a new world, Hanako will find that the gold can come in many forms, and family may be hers.
This was the secret thing Hanako felt about old people: she really didn’t understand them. It seemed like they just sat there and didn’t do much. Sometimes they were rude to you, and yet you had to be extremely, extremely polite to them. And then when they were nice to you, they asked you lots and lots of questions. Lots!
Her mother’s parents were both dead—Grandpa from being run over by a tractor while he was drunk, and Grandma from drowning in a giant wave off the coast of Hawaii. They had already passed away when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. But when Hanako had worked in her family’s restaurant, she’d encountered many old people with their families for dinner. Mostly, as said, they just sat there.
And now her family was on this gigantic ship, going across the ocean to live with her father’s elderly parents in Japan.
This was the thing about Japan: she had never been there. Her parents had told her for her entire life that it was important to be American. It was important to talk just a little more loudly than some of the girls who were being raised to be more Japanese. It was important to make eye contact and not cover your mouth when you laughed, like some of the more Japanese girls did. Basically, the way to be Japanese in America was to be more American than the Americans. And now she was being told she would need to learn to be more Japanese.
Her family had been imprisoned for almost four years—since she was eight—and now that she was kind of free, she did not know what was out there in the world for her, in the future. She had no idea. All she could hope was that from now on, and maybe forever, she would never be in jail and nobody would ever point a gun at her again.
“Hanako, do you have any candy left?” Hanako turned to look at her brother, who was standing in his underwear, his pajamas in his hands. He had pale eyebrows and a ton of black hair, with a big wine stain covering the skin around his right eye and beyond, like a pirate’s patch. She kissed his stain the way she liked to do, because it was so beautiful. It was shaped like Australia, except sideways.
Reaching into her pocket, she pretended to be searching, though her fingers were already clutching a candy. “Hmm, I don’t . . . oh, wait, I do!” She pulled the candy out and held it up triumphantly. Akira grinned and took it from her. She liked to make him happy—some days it was all she lived for, really. The candy was a butterscotch, his favorite. They had bought a bag of it a few weeks ago at one of the co-op stores in Tule Lake, where they’d last been imprisoned. Located in Northern California, Tule Lake was a high-security segregation center with almost nineteen thousand inmates. Each of the three camps where they’d been imprisoned had been different, all awful, but not in exactly the same ways. Plus, there was a different prison where her father had been held for almost a year. That was the most serious prison of all. In the freezing cold of Bismarck, North Dakota, he’d been housed with German prisoners of war. Hanako had never been freezing, but in Tule Lake she had been very cold for several days at a time, and she did not like it at all. Papa said that when you were freezing, your feet started to hurt a lot.
“Mmm, butterscotch!” Akira said now, holding it up like he was looking at a marble.
Akira had a teensy, squeaky voice—sometimes Hanako thought he sounded like he would fit in your hand. She had to admit he was a strange little creature, with his squeaky voice and with Australia on his eye and with the way he was several inches shorter than other five-year-old boys. When Akira was only a baby, Mama had said, “He was born sad.” She had rarely spoken of it again, but Hanako had not forgotten it. She was always looking for signs of sadness in his face, and she often found such signs. Sometimes, even when nothing bad had happened, he looked like he wanted to cry from something—maybe loneliness?
After Akira put the candy in his mouth, she put his pajamas on him because he looked so helpless.
“What if we sink?” he asked suddenly.
Hanako tried to think of something comforting to say. It was hard, because she didn’t know how something as big as this ship could stop itself from sinking. “It’s impossible for us to sink,” was what she came up with. “It’s a US Navy vessel. It’s probably one of the best ships in the world.” The ship they were on was called the USS Gordon, and it was about two football fields long. She didn’t understand how airplanes flew, and she didn’t understand how ships floated. She’d been quite scared about that. But at this point, who even cared? They were on the ship, and they weren’t getting off.
Akira grabbed her hand and started digging into it with his nails. Hanako always cut his nails into sharp spikes, because he liked them like that. He called them his “sharpies.” He said he needed to protect himself from . . . he could never say what. Hanako tried to wriggle her hand free. In response, he dug in harder.
She concentrated on keeping her voice calm like she (almost) always did with him. “Akira, can you hold on to my sleeve instead, please?”
“All right,” he said, grabbing her purple coat and pulling at it. She didn’t like him to pull on her purple coat—it was her favorite thing, and it was from a store instead of sewn by her mother. But she didn’t scold him, though that took a heap of self-control. She didn’t want him to say what he’d said to her twice in the past: “You like your coat more than you like me!”
She looked around but didn’t see where their mother had gone off to. Mama always liked to know what was going on. At the Tule Lake camp she used to go out every morning after breakfast and talk and talk to people. That’s what Hanako had heard, anyway; she was at school. Mama was obsessed with what was going on. It was like she was desperate to know more. Always more. Mama used to be a calm person—serene, even. She never used to care that much about what was happening in the outside world. But in camp her eyes became filled with a hunger to know things.
Hanako wondered if anybody here actually knew anything about what was going on. But how would they? It was very crowded here in the sleeping quarters, and you couldn’t see much because the aisles—the space between each set of bunks—was maybe two feet.
She scrambled up to the top bunk, looking around and seeing more bunks. But not that many. Sixty? In stacks of four, so 240 people sleeping here. Supposedly, there were thousands of Nikkei being sent to Japan on this very ship. Nikkei were people of Japanese descent, whether they were citizens of America, Japan, or any other country. Only women and children were in this room—all the men and older boys were on another part of the ship. It was strange how quiet the whole crowd was. Probably scared and depressed. Then Akira whimpered, “Hanako, I’m afraid. Why do we have to go on this ship?”
Trying to get down quickly, she tumbled to the floor and then immediately dusted off her coat. “Because we don’t belong in America anymore,” she said as she dusted.
Akira closed his right eye and tilted his head. That’s what he did when he was trying to decide something. “I think I do. I do belong in America.”
Hanako thought this over. That was a hard one, because she wasn’t sure about it. “Belonging” was a difficult concept at the moment. Really, for the people on this ship, they “belonged” with their families, if they had them. Where else was there to belong at this point? They had no country.
It was a complicated and confusing story, why they had to be on this ship. There was no way to think about it and have it make sense. First, Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in early December 1941, a little more than four years ago. Second, that caused America to enter World War II. And third, more than 110,000 Nikkei—mostly American citizens—living on the West Coast had been imprisoned in ten different places, for no good reason. And then about six thousand more had been born in the camps! What had Hanako’s family done wrong that they had to be held captive for almost four entire years? They ran a restaurant in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles!
They were sent to a temporary camp nearby, then a permanent one in Jerome, Arkansas. Jerome was a bad camp, because the director was really tough and made some inmates cut down trees for the whole camp for heat in the winter. Logging was one of the most deadly professions in America, Papa said. At Jerome it was grueling work with old equipment. The men—like Papa—who were forced to work as loggers there had no prior experience, so Hanako was always worried that her father would get killed. The other camps were provided with coal, but Jerome’s director, Mr. Taylor, wouldn’t stand for that. He was only thirty-four, and Papa said he did not have the least idea of what the difference was between right and wrong. But, still, he insisted Hanako and Akira call him “Mr.” She’d called him “Taylor” once, and Papa had reprimanded her for being rude. “But he didn’t hear me, he’s not even here,” she had replied. Her father hadn’t answered, just frowned at her.
One time she had complained to Akira, “I don’t know why we have to call him ‘Mr.’?” And Akira had said patiently to her, “Because he’s the boss man, Hana.” And he was only three years old when he said that! Actually, Hanako had realized she agreed with him, because that’s the way she was raised: She could not stand the idea of not showing a grown-up respect. Even if it made her angry and sometimes made her cry, she could not stand it. Even if it ripped her whole heart out, she could not have stood it. So she always called him Mr. Taylor after that. Even though she hated him.
But now Akira was staring at her. “Why do you look mad?”
“I don’t! You need to get in bed,” she said in her most official voice, the one her brother usually listened to.
They had decided he would sleep right above her. The “beds” were hung by chains. Each one was only a sheet of canvas, maybe two feet above the one below. On every bed lay a muddy-green blanket, with no linen and no pillow. This is where the American soldiers had once slept when they were helping to save the world during the war, Hanako thought. And then she remembered the American soldiers who’d occasionally pointed guns at her in camp. Papa said the good and the bad thing about people like soldiers—and for that matter, all people—was that they usually did what they were told. That sometimes made them act bravely, and it could also make them act right sometimes, but wrong sometimes, too. So you needed to have the right people telling them what to do. Papa said that was the hard part. Maybe, he said, it was the impossible part. Hanako thought about how she sometimes did the wrong thing when she didn’t think her parents would find out. Like when she and some other kids found several empty glass bottles once and threw them against the barracks in camp. For no reason. Then they ran away. She wasn’t sure if it was easier or harder to always do the right thing when you were a grown-up. She actually had no idea.
Akira’s eyes were closed already. He could fall asleep anywhere, anytime, in about ten seconds. Sometimes you had to scream to wake him up.
She took off her precious coat and thought about hanging it on the hook where her duffel bag was. But what if the hook tore the fabric? She laid it on the bed instead. But what if she wrinkled it when she slept? Suddenly she felt like crying. She did not want her coat to get wrinkled! She did not want to spend two weeks inside this ship! She did not want to go to Japan! There was so much that she didn’t want, but at the same time she didn’t even know what she did want.
“Are you all right?” a woman asked.
She realized her eyes were tightly closed, tears squeezing out. She opened them quickly. In front of her was a tired-looking lady holding a baby. “Because we’re all here to take care of you,” the woman continued. “Nothing will hurt you now.”
“Thank you,” Hanako said, embarrassed. “I’m fine. I’m sorry . . . I shouldn’t cry.” Crying wasn’t very brave.
But the woman was now gazing down at her baby, who was suddenly whimpering. Beyond her, Hanako spotted her mother looking wild-eyed as she walked toward someone new. Mama laid her hand on the new woman’s arm, leaned toward her, and began talking. Mama had a habit of getting too close to people when she wanted to know what was going on. Hanako began to undress, having decided to lay her coat over her blanket while she slept.
Women and children all around were also changing into their bedclothes. Nobody was shy, because in the camps there had been showers and latrines with no partitions between them. So none of them had had privacy for years. When you’d been forced to be naked in front of strangers every day for years, you didn’t have much shame left.
She got into her bottom bunk and thought about a magazine photograph she had seen in camp, of American soldiers sleeping in a room much like this one. They were wearing their uniforms, though they were in bed. She thought about how some of those men might be dead now. Maybe a soldier who had slept in this very bunk had been killed in the war. For a moment she felt as if she could sense him. Maybe he had been scared, or maybe he had been brave. Probably both.
Her bunk was about two inches from the ground, but there was no sag, so she couldn’t feel the floor. There was so little sag, she could hardly tell Akira lay above her.
She touched a seam in her pajamas. The US government had allowed each family to bring only sixty dollars on board this ship. Mama was holding that money. This was because even though the war was over, the government wanted to control every last thing they did, until the last possible moment. But Hanako was carrying another twenty dollars that her mother had hidden in a seam in her pajamas. Akira’s pajamas held twenty as well, so altogether they had a hundred dollars. Maybe Papa had managed to hide some money too.
She felt her thick braid on her back. Briefly, she considered undoing her hair, but she didn’t want to lose her rubber band. It was her last one. She was quite concerned about it. She’d tried ribbons and string, but they always slipped out of her hair. Her rubber band was dear to her. When you hardly had anything, even a lowly rubber band could fill you with feelings.
But she needed to think of something happy. So she thought, Japan will be fine. It will be beautiful. Everyone will love me. She closed her eyes and pictured the three most beautiful places in Japan. She’d never been there, but in class at Tule Lake the children had painted watercolors of the three beautiful places: Matsushima, Miyajima, and Amanohashidate.
Matsushima was a group of more than 250 small islands in blue, blue water. Miyajima was the island of the gods. Amanohashidate was a sandbar covered in pine trees. So all three of the most beautiful places in Japan had to do with water. Miyajima was near Hiroshima, where they were headed. She hoped it would be beautiful too.
Reading Group Guide
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A Place to Belong
By Cynthia Kadohata
About the Book
After being imprisoned for four years in a Japanese internment camp, Hanako and her family are leaving America for a new life in post–World War II Japan. Deeply sensitive and observant, Hanako is conflicted about leaving her birth country, meeting her grandparents for the first time, living on their tenant farm, and fitting in. Life abruptly changes from the moment the family boards the ship that will take them to Japan. Hanako witnesses the horrific devastation of Hiroshima, confronts the very real possibility of starvation, and struggles to come to terms with who she is in this new land. A Place to Belong explores one family’s struggle to survive in the aftermath of war, showing that even when things seem bleak, life can—and must—move forward.
1. The story opens with Hanako’s family preparing to travel to Japan by sea after a four-year imprisonment at Tule Lake. Hanako is happy to be out of the camp, but is conflicted about moving to Japan. She tells her brother, Akira, “‘We don’t belong in America anymore.’” What do you think it means to belong? Think about belonging in the context of a family, a country, and a culture? Why do you think many Japanese Americans lost their sense of belonging? What is evidence of belonging? How do you treat people and how do they treat you when there’s a collective feeling of belonging?
2. One of the story’s prominent themes is life’s dual nature. What does duality mean to you? Can you locate other examples of this in the text? Consider the passage where Hanako remembers something Papa said to her about Mr. Taylor, Camp Jerome’s cruel director: “‘Mr. Taylor has a life. He was a baby once. Maybe he has children; maybe not; maybe he will someday. He has hard days and easy days. He has emotions. These are the things that keep me from killing him.’” What meaning does Hanako take from her father’s words?
3. Discuss the meaning of “What rises, falls. What falls, rises,” and how this adage is illustrated in the story. In difficult situations, Hanako often thinks, “and yet.” How do these two words reflect Hanako’s ability to consider things from multiple perspectives? How does this ability help in her situation? Have you ever had to think about things from someone else’s point of view? How did that impact the outcome of your situation?
4. After the family realizes Hanako’s and Akira’s duffel bags are missing, Hanako understands, “That was the way war was―things just became gone.” Papa realizes her sadness and says, “‘Let me tell you, when I was in Bismarck, when I had nothing, not even a family, it taught me who I am. . . . You’re still Hanako. That twenty dollars in your seam doesn’t make you Hanako.’” What does Papa want Hanako to understand from his words? How can having nothing teach you important things about life and yourself?
5. The purple coat Hanako got at Tule Lake is one of the items she brings to Japan. Why is Hanako’s purple coat so precious to her? Beyond the ability to keep her warm, what does it represent to Hanako? After she trips and falls in the mud, Hanako hears a “hysteria in her voice” as she yells at Akira not to muddy her coat. Why does the thought of dirtying her coat make her so upset? How does the importance of the coat change over the course of the story, and why? Why does Hanako decide to give the coat to Mimi? Do you have an item like Hanako’s coat that you feel strongly about? If so, why does it mean so much to you?
6. Hanako is deeply thoughtful, sensitive, and prone to worry. Why did touching the 2.5 million-year-old volcanic rocks in Tule Lake help her to feel “that eventually all would be right with the world”? How does Hanako gradually learn how to live “in the moment”? Why do you think this is an important lesson for Hanako to learn?
7. Hanako is confused about who she is, saying, “‘But . . . I don’t know if you want me to be American or Japanese.’” Why does Hanako feel pulled in two directions? Can you name other situations that illustrate how she feels? What advice would you have for Hanako?
8. Discuss Hanako’s relationship with Akira. Cite actions throughout the story that reveal her deep connection to her brother. How does Akira serve as a metaphor for living in the present?
9. The theme of survival runs throughout the story. Discuss actions and decisions Hanako’s family and other characters in the book make in order to survive. How do they justify their actions? How do they feel about having to make these decisions? Discuss Baachan’s statement, “‘Akira is sick. To feed him is more important than not to steal.’” Describe why Hanako feels like throwing up when she realizes her family expects her to steal the wheat. Reread the section where Hanako talks about feelings that come to her when she is hungry. Why does hunger give her the “awful thought” that she is “more important that anyone in the whole world”? Why is the thought so awful to her?
10. While on the train to Hiroshima, Hanako notices the poverty in the Japanese countryside; she thinks back to her former life in California and how relatively better off they were there compared to what she sees out the train window. This is an early example of Hanako’s understanding of how her life circumstances are relative to the life circumstances of others. Discuss other examples from the text where Hanako ultimately sees her life in the context of the world at large, and can weigh her problems against others who are suffering.
11. How does Hanako demonstrate that she’s highly observant and attuned to the world around her? Reread chapter 14. How does this chapter illustrate Hanako’s powers of observation and her questioning mind? Do you think these traits were impacted by her experiences in the camp?
12. Hanako is empathetic beyond her years. Discuss the scene where she offers a katapan (cracker) to the man with no pants. How does this small act reveal Hanako’s enormous ability to feel for her fellow man? How can you channel Hanako’s example in your own life?
13. One of Papa’s mottos is “Do everything you can.” How does Hanako’s experience seeing the destruction in Hiroshima make her feel that these words are meaningless? How does she put these words into action in the train station, at the farm, and with Kiyoshi? How does Kiyoshi become an important figure in Hanako’s life? After Hanako gives him the butterscotch candy, why does he say, “It’s not food. It’s . . . it’s like it’s making fun of me”? How does hunger become like a character in the story? Give other evidence of this.
14. Throughout the story Hanako is reminded of the temporal nature of life: time is fleeting, and the world and everything in it is constantly changing. In addition to wanting to fit in, how is Hanako’s decision to cut off her braid an example of the changing nature of life? How would you have reacted to these changes if you were in Hanako’s shoes?
15. Hanako displays enormous bravery in the face of her family’s situation. How does Hanako show courage on her first day of school? How does she become more independent during her time in Japan? Why does she equate growing up with “being by yourself more”? How does being hungry force her to grow up?
16. When the family gets off the train and begins their journey on foot to Jiichan and Baachan’s house, Hanako is worried that Papa doesn’t know the way. Papa reassures Hanako that he does, saying, “‘I just had to find it in my memory.’” Discuss the importance of memory and the nature of memory as themes in this story. How does memory sustain Hanako as she struggles to begin her life in Japan? Can memories be both helpful and hurtful?
17. After the horrors of witnessing the destruction of Hiroshima and its effects on the Japanese people, Hanako experienced the healing pleasures of a warm bath and a cup of tea, and “felt such a surge of optimism that she wondered for a second whether she’d been hallucinating when she saw Hiroshima.” Why does Hanako feel this way from the seemingly simple experiences of bathing and drinking tea? How does this illustrate both the power of a kind act and the difficulties in comprehending tragic events?
18. Jiichan tells Hanako, “‘There is many bad, but there is also many good. So we move forward in life, neh? When we can, we move forward.’” Discuss examples of how Hanako and her family live by this idea. Why is this idea so powerful?
19. Discuss the concept of kintsukuroi or “the thing you break you must fix with gold.” What “gold” does Hanako use to help herself and her family move forward? How can Hanako feel happy when she is still hungry, knowing that food will be scarce for some time to come? Do you think there can be both an emotional and a physical hunger?
20. Hanako is faced with many dilemmas over the course of the story. What do you think about her decision to give a potato to the old woman? Explain your reasoning. What does it mean to “harden your heart”? Do you think Hanako was right not to trade the family’s rice for a kimono? Why does she feel “rather mixed up” after she gives her shoes to Kiyoshi and bargains with him for a purple kimono for Baachan?
21. What is unconditional love? How do Jiichan and Baachan display unconditional love for Hanako and Akira? How does Baachan’s love and self-sacrifice dissolve Hanako’s anger? Can you name a time when you’ve shown unconditional love for someone in your life, or they’ve acted out of unconditional love for you?
22. Hanako realized that “sometimes you just had to go out into the world and trust it would happen. You had to trust that there were good people in the world.” How does Hanako learn the meaning of trust? Do you think trust is an easy thing to earn?
1. Conduct a class research project into President Roosevelt’s executive order that resulted in the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Encourage students to find out which groups supported or opposed the order, how long the imprisonment lasted, and how Japanese Americans were treated before and during the imprisonment.
2. Have students identify aspects of Japanese culture that appear throughout the story. Place students in pairs or small groups to research one of these aspects and share their findings with the class.
3. Hanako was born in the Year of the Rooster. Papa was born in the Year of the Dog. Give students time to discover where their birthdays fall in Chinese astrology. Students can make a drawing or painting that depicts their birth year.
4. Hanako says to Baachan, “‘You can tell me your memories. Then they won’t be gone.’” Have students conduct oral history interviews with older family members, friends, or members of the community. Afterward, have students write about their experiences in a personal essay.
5. Teach students the traditional Japanese poetry form of haiku. Present the classic three-line, 5/7/5 syllabic pattern. Show examples of haiku by professional poets. Give students time to write and illustrate their own haiku and present the finished products in a classroom “gallery walk.”
Guide written by Colleen Carroll, literacy specialist, education consultant, and author of the twelve-volume series, How Artists See and four-volume How Artists See, Jr. (Abbeville Press). Contact Colleen at www.colleencarroll.us.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
About The Illustrator
Julia Kuo is the creator of 20 Ways to Draw a Cat and 44 Other Awesome Animals as well as the charming board book Everyone Eats. Julia also created the cover and interior artwork for Newbery Medal–winning author Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck and Place to Belong and New York Times bestselling author Jenny Han’s Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream. She lives in Chicago. Find out more online at JuliaKuo.com.
Why We Love It
“Besides its wealth of information, this novel also encourages readers to question what they’ve been taught about history, and to look at it from a different angle.” —Caitlyn D., Editorial Director, on A Place I Belong
- Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books (June 9, 2020)
- Length: 432 pages
- ISBN13: 9781481446655
- Grades: 5 - 9
- Ages: 10 - 14
- Lexile ® 690L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®
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Awards and Honors
- Kansas NEA Reading Circle List Junior Title
- Chicago Public Library's Best of the Best
- Commonwealth Club of California Book Award
- Judy Lopez Memorial Award Honor Book
- Freeman Book Award
- Just One More Page Recommendation List
Resources and Downloads
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Book Cover Image (jpg): A Place to Belong
Trade Paperback 9781481446655
Author Photo (jpg): Cynthia Kadohata
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More books from this illustrator: Julia Kuo
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