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From reality to fairytale in Japanese America

When a book is written its story can be sparked by any number of prompts, ideas, experiences. They can be personal, they can be observed in others, they can be imaginary. It is the way the thoughts, feelings, ideas and experiences that ignite that spark are then combined to make a story which make for compelling reading.

Having had, in the last couple of weeks Sarah Kuhn’s From Little Tokyo With Love (Penguin Teen) and Emiko Jean’s Tokyo Ever After (Macmillan) in my reading pile - purely by coincidence, it made me wonder what it is about the Japanese-American experience that makes such a good story. For both are excellent books that completely absorbed my attention.

The first is a love story, a fairytale inspired adventure full of family secrets and hidden histories that will have you puzzled and intrigued but at the same time which reveal to the reader a rich culture, a culture full of tradition, a culture that at times is still struggling to be accepted against the backdrop of the city of Los Angeles with all its own individual complexities.

An outsider looking at Rika's life may think it has the elements of a fairytale. She is an orphan, adopted by her aunt, living with two bossy cousins and working in her aunt's business - perhaps a modern day Cinderella springs to mind? But much as she loves her family (despite the Disney names. given to the cousins) she is under no illusion about it being a fairytale life - far from it - her first love is judo not princesses! All is about to change, Rika is about to meet a possible prince charming AND America's rom-com sweetheart, the actress everyone loves. These chance meetings propel her into a madcap adventure of highs and lows, hopes and happiness in the search for clues about the mother she never knew. With Rika we are led into an exploration of Little Tokyo and a search for a true sense of belonging. Will Rika be swept away, just like in the fairytales or will she let reality take over?

The second is both hilarious and heartfelt as it reveals to us the two very different worlds of America and Japan. Again presenting us the cultures, the people, who hope to get along and understand one another but still continue to struggle.

Izumi Tanaka has lived an for seventeen years in her small town in the heart of America. They have been an uneventful seventeen years - as much as any teenagers life ever is! She is however very aware of how different her family is to all the families of her classmates, at times she is even embarrassed by the difference. When she stumbles across a clue to the identity of her unknown father some of those differences are about to grow exponentially for Izumi is about to learn that she is a crown princess ... Before too long Izumi is travelling overseas to a country she has never seen, only ever dreamed of and a life that promises to be like no other. With conniving cousins, hungry press and a bodyguard with the perfect scowl life throws everything at her. then of course there are the thousands of years of tradition and custom to learn. Caught between worlds Izumi is not sure if she can be with Japanese enough or American enough

Despite the underlying tensions of the struggles faced by the characters because of their heritage both books are full of hope and joy, sharing with us a unique richness. Where does this stem from I wanted to know and so I set about investigating …

In part it is the fairytale life and the stories the authors saw and heard around them which inspired, stories that tended never to feature anyone like themselves or with their heritage. They wanted to put their childhood selves into the stories, to show that happy endings can happen to everyone and that they don’t have to be the stereotypical happy endings either. They also wanted to demonstrate that whilst they may have different cultural background and heritage the country they were growing up in there is a richness to every culture and cultures can, do mix – the discovery of Little Tokyo, a small piece of Japan in the vastness of America celebrates that too.

These are books for readers to explore on many layers, they are books that address the issue of crossing cultures, of cultural differences, of celebrating who you are, finding your unique identity and being proud of it. They are also books about the imagination, the joy of story, the joy of life. They have been written for us all to enjoy reading for the sheer pleasure of the words on the page, they teach us some valuable lessons, not least of which is to remember that we can all find and have our happy endings if we just open our eyes and our hearts to who we are, where we have come from, where we are now, where we can be.

Louise Ellis-Barrett


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