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Planting Seeds

Planting SeedsTufts graduate Amy Lee-Tai's award-winning children's book transforms painful history into the promise of a hopeful future.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [12.03.07] When an eight-year-old Japanese-American girl named Mari comes to Topaz Internment Camp during the Second World War, she is confused and terrified. The guards are cruel, she misses her home in California, and nothing grows in the parched Utah desert. It takes a kind art teacher and loving parents to teach Mari that even in the harshest conditions, flowers can grow.

That lesson of hope in the face of intolerance helped Amy Lee-Tai's A Place Where Sunflowers Grow win the 2007 Jane Addams Children's Book Award this fall. The bilingual picture book, written in both English and Japanese, was honored for promoting peace and justice in the world community.

The award has been presented annually since 1953 by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and the Jane Addams Peace Association. At the award ceremony on Oct. 19, award committee chair Susan C. Griffith said that the book "demonstrates that, with time, patience, care and the arts, human dignity and human compassion can be nurtured in even the most unjust circumstances."

While Mari's story has international appeal, it is deeply personal to Lee-Tai. Ibuki Hibi Lee, her mother, was interned at Topaz as a child. Her grandmother, artist Hisako Hibi, taught at Topaz Art School while they lived in the camp, along with Lee-Tai's grandfather.

The book incorporates family history through illustrations inspired by her grandmother's artwork and Japanese translations done by Lee-Tai's younger brother.

"It's been very much a family project," says Lee-Tai. In fact, the proposal originally came to Ibuki Hibi Lee after she published a memoir of Lee-Tai's grandmother, Peaceful Painter Hisako Hibi: Memoirs of an Issei Woman Artist, in 2004.

"Children's Book Press found that book soon after it had been released, and asked her if she'd be interested in writing this," Lee-Tai says. "For many reasons, she decided to pass it on to me."

Lee-Tai was happy to take on the project.. "For several years I'd had an interest in writing a children's book based on my grandmother and her artwork," she explains. "For this book I envisioned a girl planting sunflower seeds with her mother, the process of planting seeds and going to art school helping her and nurturing her."

A Place Where Sunflowers Grow is Lee-Tai's first children's book, and a new turn on a varied career path. After graduating from Tufts in 1989 with a degree in psychology, she worked for four years in social services before deciding to get a graduate degree in literacy education from Harvard.

"I wasn't one of those individuals who came to Tufts and knew what I wanted to study," she says. "I don't even know if I knew when I left. It's a process and in some ways I'm still trying to define it."

Part of that process includes writing an award-winning book. But true to her background in education, Lee-Tai is concerned with what children and adults will take away from the book and the lessons they'll learn.

sunflowers

 

"In many ways this is a simple book with a simple plot, but there are so many layers," she says. "Personally speaking, I'm interested in children learning about my grandmother and her art, about art schools in the camp, and the internment.

"The internment is an episode in history that is still not frequently discussed in classrooms," Lee-Tai explains. "It is slowly making its way into curricula but not consistently and not in any deep way. It's something in our past, but it's something that was so tragic and affected so many individuals."

Still, Lee-Tai says perceptions of Asian-Americans have come a long way since the days of Topaz Internment Camp. "Last year when there was the shooting at Virginia Tech, the shooter was Korean-American, and as an Asian-American I had to wonder what the ramifications would be for the Korean-American community," she recalls. "But from what I gathered, all parties involved seemed to handle it gracefully, thoughtfully, and that made me think that we have come a long way since the internment."

Lee-Tai hopes that her book will serve as a "gentle introduction" for children and adults to the history of the internment ofJapanese citizens during WWII. She notes that American interest in the topic has increased over the past few years.

"I think there's been more interest because of the war in Iraq," she says. "There are definitely parallels, and it's coincidental that the book came out now right at the peak of all this."

On the subject of tolerance, Lee-Tai concedes that "we still have a long way to go." Her work, she says, is teaching hope and understanding to future generations.

"I hope to reach some readers and plant some seeds, let them learn a bit from history that maybe they will take with them in the way that they choose to relate to other people in our world," she says. "I don't think that this book can do it single-handedly but if there are enough things like this I think we can create a generation that's going to be more gentle and peaceful."

Profile written by Hannah Ehrlich (A'08)

 

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