Age Appropriateness: There are some tough topics in Nanea, some of which are reflected in current events. I would definitely err on the side of maturity and recommend age 9 and older.
*Every child is different, which is why the ages I use are about Emotional Maturity, not Chronological Age, your 7-year-old may love this book, and it may hit too-close-to-home for another person’s 12-year-old.
Parent Involvement: I would strongly recommend a Parent read-along with the Nanea books to be available for questions and discussions.
BOOK ONE – Growing Up With Aloha
Nanea book one, Growing up with Aloha is, quite honestly, wonderful. It is deeply emotional and successfully captures the wide range of human experience from horror to love.
Nine-year-old Nanea Mitchell lives with her family on Oahu, HI, very close to the Pearl Harbor army base in 1941. The story opens in November, and each chapter artfully counts down the calendar towards December 7th. The author builds a beautiful picture of life on the island for Nanea, encompassing school, family, friends, hobbies and festivals, things that Nanea will have to emotionally navigate either disappearing entirely or radically and instantaneously changing in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, no area of her life, or the lives of those surrounding her, remains the same. After the attack, Nanea is unable to get excited about what she previously wanted for herself, but she finds great comfort in making her friends, family and community happy. She uses her creativity and imagination to cheer up her family, to help her friends and to address the needs of her shaken community. When she hears of a shortage of bottles for blood donations, Nanea organizes her friends who go door-to-door collecting old bottles, and drum up hundreds of extra bottles for The Red Cross.
The retelling of the morning of the attack on Pearl Harbor is very well done, and heartbreaking in many ways. It’s an honest look, with the reader learning the reality of what happened from the radio with Nanea and her family. Even though Nanea witnesses the Japanese aircraft first hand, they disappear from her view behind bushes and she hears booming, but does not know what happened. When her older brother David carries her back in the house from where she was transfixed in the yard, information starts to unfold with the radio announcer relaying information as it comes in. Each neighbor that comes to the door brings another tidbit of information. It tells a scary story of a horrific event without ever letting Nanea – or child readers – close to the actual horror, while still thoroughly describing and making real the panic and fear Nanea and her family felt. It’s very heavy, and very young readers may not understand it. I cried, actually quite a bit, author Kirby Larson does an unbelievably good job of putting the emotional impact on paper.
After the attack, change happens faster than Nanea can keep up. Her dad and brother both have responsibilities helping with the needs of the base, they leave and aren’t heard from again for over a week. Nanea’s dog went missing after being frightened by the loud booming, but Nanea isn’t allowed to leave the house to go look for her until several days later, and then not alone. Her life-long best friend Lily is Japanese-american, and her father is arrested by the FBI the afternoon of December 7th. This will eventually add tension in Nanea and Lily’s relationship when Nanea says she knows how Lily feels because Nanea’s dad is working on base for weeks at a time, Lily (obviously) doesn’t agree with the comparison, since her father is in FBI custody, not working on repairing ships.
As the shock wears off on the island, many characters discuss their grief for their old way of life and wonder if it will ever be the same.
Nanea’s father is a civilian welder on staff at the Pearl Harbor base, and he shares that he had to cut open ships to “Retrieve trapped soldiers”. He goes quiet for a moment and then says “The Navy doesn’t want me talking about it.” He never mentions if the soldiers in question were dead or alive.
Characters engage in several discussions of Racism (though not using the word) and Nanea’s grandfather tells her that it isn’t right, but people can do some very wrong things, thinking they are right, when they are afraid. There are several situations in which Lily or members of her family endure racist remarks, or racially charged vandalism to their property.
Nanea is incredibly good-at-heart and giving of herself. She is creative and imaginative, loyal and strong.
For me though, the shining star of this story has to be older brother David. 17-year-old David and Nanea’s relationship is close, and they adore each other. David is sweet, he’s gentle but funny. He never dismisses Nanea’s ideas or concerns, instead he encourages her and lets her know he is proud of her. In many other American Girl stories, if the main girl has a brother, he is either a bit of an antagonistic relationship (Molly), or he is absent either in reality (Addy) or by being largely Ignored throughout the story (Rebecca). David is both a positive and important force in Nanea’s life AND Very present in the story. This was so amazing to see. There is foreshadowing of his intention to enlist when he turns 18, though, so I suspect his absence and being in danger will be one of Nanea’s future challenges. In short, if there was a David doll, I would personally have ordered him before I finished the book!
Hawaiian culture and language are woven in beautifully and accurately, many of the concepts of the culture that are not typically understood by people outside the culture are addressed and explained very well.
I might steer very young readers (such as ages 5 or 6) to lighter stories, such as Felicity, Kirsten, Julie, Rebecca, and even Molly as a different WWII perspective. However, I will say this is not only a great and highly educational read, but also an important and extremely well-done one to understand a pivotal period in American history from an often overlooked perspective of a Hawaiian islander.
Close Family relationships
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