I run a bookgroup for homeschooled kids between the ages of 9 and 14 out of my library. They’re good kids and voracious readers but they serve as a strange litmus test of what children out there are reading and enjoying today. I often will bring them new books out of curiosity and once in a while, they surprise me with their insights. For example, I got a bunch of Kane/Miller books in the other day so I spread `em out on the table to see who bit. Considering how jaded I am in general, I assumed that the classy cover bereft of even a hint of glitter would make little to no impact on them. How wrong I was. One of my girls zeroed in on Hannah’s Winter and plucked it up right there and then. For a fantasy, Kierein Meehan’s novel sports a pretty tasteful and serene cover. Next week my homeschooler was back, and she informed me in no uncertain terms, "It’s really good." From the horse’s mouth. Who was I to argue? Her vote plus the starred Kirkus review this book has garnered were enough to get me reading it as well. And darned if she wasn’t right all along! Steeped in extensive details about modern small town Japanese life, Hannah’s Winter is like nothing out there on American bookshelves for kids. Got a kid who loves fantasy? Got a kid that loves Japan? Meehan delivers the goods in spades.
Worst. Mother. Ever. Maybe that’s a bit harsh. But believe you me, Hannah is not feeling particularly charitable towards her mom when she finds herself picked up from Australia and left in Kanazawa, a city on the west coast of Japan’s largest island, Honshu. Forced to stay with one of her mom’s friends and a girl roughly her own age, Hannah quickly finds herself immersed in an entirely new world. The Maekawas are nice people who run a paper shop. When Mr. Maekawa receives a mysterious box containing a piece of paper with instructions on it, Hannah suddenly finds herself plunged into a historical mystery and the ghost of a young boy. With her friend Miki and the boy next door, the three kids work to decipher the riddle and help the ghost, even if it means going against an unknown evil. An extensive Author’s Note gives further information on Kanazawa and offers commentary on the real life places and people mentioned in the book.
The crazy thing about this book is that in spite of its fantasy elements, this is the kind of story fans of realistic fiction will also dig. Meehan has a dead keen talent for conjuring up the feel of different places, temperatures, colors, and sights. You don’t just get a sense of Japan in this book. You live it. You’re there. Heck, on top of that I’ve hardly ever read a book that did as good a job at describing wet snow. Meehan has conjured it up perfectly here, getting down its dampness and the sheer annoyance of slush. Or when discussing having to take off your shoes in a poorly heated building, "my feet snap-froze to blocks of ice as soon as we took off our shoes." Slightly less keen is her skill with people and their emotions. I’m not saying Meehan is bad at them or anything. Certainly Hannah is a three-dimensional character, full of sparkle and energy. I think it’s just that when compared the love lavished on the setting, Meehan’s strength clearly lies in putting you in a character’s eyes, if not shoes.
The written language itself serves as sufficient enticement for picking this book up, I think. I took particular pleasure in sentences like, "Its light quivered across walls and floors, across the other papery patterns and shapes around it, bending their sharp edges and colors into hazy uncertainty." Or how about this look at a city’s downtown area during snowy dusk: "Along the footpaths, tiny gold lights shone from spindly, naked branches of thin trees, like delicate hands in black jeweled gloves."
As with any book that takes place in another country, there is the little matter of communication. But the language barrier is cleverly covered here by allowing Hannah to be proficient in speaking Japanese (her mother taught her). Just not at writing it. Of course there is the occasional moment when I’m not entirely certain if there’s a Japanese equivalent for what she says. For example, there may well be a way of saying, "No problems, Mr. S" in Japanese, but it sounds pretty particular to English for my tastes.
This book was originally published in Australia, a fact that you can mostly forget. However, there are a couple moments when Hannah’s speech (and she is Australian herself, remember) utilizes words or phrases not usually thrown about in American conversations. There may be some American kids that can parse the sentence, "Wild Wattle is the world’s pongiest," or "She’s like David Suzuki and Ita Buttrose rolled into one," but it’s definitely not a given. I liked that, though. I like it when publishers bring in books from other countries and don’t Americanize the speech. It gives the books a distinctive flavor when they contain the occasional Australianism. Wakes `em up.
The homeschooler I handed this book off to left me a note in the front when she gave it back to me. In it, she mentions that the author got the Japanese character for winter slightly wrong. The character appears at the beginning of each chapter and, according to my twelve-year-old source, lacks two little slash marks. However, due to the fact that this is my only source of Japanese written know-how, you will need to consult with your own expert in the field to determine whether or not this is correct. I trust her, but suspect there might be another reason why the character looks the way it does.
With the rise of manga amongst kids today, fascination with Japan has reached an all-time fever pitch amongst our tween and adolescents. I know kids who study the language with the sole dream of someday getting to visit Japan themselves someday. But if I look on my library’s shelves, I don’t see much of anything speaking to this need. How many contemporary novels for kids can you name that take place in Japan? The pickings are slim to none. This book stands as a delight, mixing realism and fantasy in a believable fashion. There is a need for this title on our library’s shelves. Those kids meant to find it, will. Like nothing else you can name.
Notes on the Cover: As I mentioned before, I didn’t think this was an effective cover, but apparently it acts as catnip to those kids already thrilled with all-things Japan.
Misc: Here’s the Australian cover the book. Extra points for the inclusion of the donut there: