The Dear America series rides again!

2:29 PM 0 Comments A+ a-

I was elated when I heard that Scholastic was reviving the Dear America series of books.  I only discovered them in library school and remember tearing through the whole lot of them thinking the whole while that I would have loved to have had something like them when I was a young reader, since my genre of choice was historical fiction.  Dear America was my first introduction to such great children's/YA authors as Kathryn Lasky and Walter Dean Myers, and as someone who studied history in college, I have always been impressed with the level of scholarship Scholastic puts behind each book in the series.
Hattie Big Sky

But the series had taken a hiatus for a while, much to the chagrin of librarians everywhere who enjoyed having a new one to promote.  Luckily, with the latest addition, The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis, Seattle, Washington, 1941 by Kirby Larson, we can honestly say the series is back and better than ever.  Librarians know the quality of Kirby Larson's work, as she is the author of the renowned, Hattie Big Sky,which won the Newbery Award in 2007 and was inspired by the experience of Larson's great-grandmother (teachers and librarians should definitely check out Larson's companion website for this novel which has wonderful supplemental information and links).

The Fences Between Us is the story of Piper Davis, an 8th grader and the youngest daughter of a minister who has a congregation in the Japanese American neighborhood of Seattle.  Piper's life is a modest one because of her father's profession.  Her mother died years ago and she is close to her older sister who is studying chemistry in college, and her older brother, the family extrovert.  You can imagine with the time and location that the whole family's life changes drastically with the occasion of Pearl Harbor, particularly because the older brother, Hank, had joined the navy a few months earlier and was stationed on the U.S.S. Arizona.

As America enters the war, Piper watches her sister leave school to work at the local Boeing factory and her father struggle with gas rationing and parishoners in need, all the while worrying about Hank, who survived Pearl Harbor and was now fighting in the South Pacific. But Piper doesn't see coming what her father finds inevitable - the incarceration of the Japanese American families who live in their neighborhood, go to Piper's school, and make up their entire parish.  Because of her life being so entirely enmeshed with these friends, she is shocked and horrified at people's lack of understanding, particularly when it comes from lifelong friends and love interests.  But even her loyalty is put to test when her father makes the ultimate decision - to take Piper and move to the incarceration camp in Montana his parish has been sent to in order to continue to minister to their needs.

This novel provides a much needed addition to the oeuvre of Japanese internment novels for young people.  While previous books in the Dear America series dealt with this issue from the perspective of Japanese American children, Piper's story allows the reader to see not only the conditions inside the camp but the treatment of Piper and her father by the many prejudiced people who truly believed these fellow Americans posed a threat. 

Perhaps most heartening is the fact that Larson actually based this story on the family of a real individual, Pastor Emery "Andy" Andrews, pastor of the Japanese Baptist Church, who actually did move his entire family to the location of one of the internment camps in Idaho in order to minister to his parishioners.  This is a painful but heartfelt topic and one excellently executed by a talented author.