From the Publisher
“In this graceful first novel, the funeral of one boy's grandmother excites a curiosity about death in three Japanese schoolboys . . . An offbeat and unsentimental coming-of-age story.” Starred, Kirkus Reviews
“An eloquent initiation story that first touches and then pierces the heart . . . The passage of the time and the nature of mutability are poetically expressed in this warmly humorous narrative, deserving of equally high marks in kid appeal and literary merit.” Starred, Publishers Weekly
“A book about death that espouses the pure joy in life.” School Library Journal
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This novel features three 12-year-old boys in Japan who find friendship through their mutual fascination with death. In a starred review, PW called this "an eloquent initiation story that first touches and then pierces the heart." Ages 10-up. (May)
The ALAN Review - Connie Russell
Set in Japan, this translated story by a Japanese author begins with three friends - Kiyama, Kawabe, and Yamashita - who become curious about dying, following the death of Yamashita's grandmother. Determined to learn more, they choose an old man from their neighborhood to watch. Believing they will see death first-hand if they continually watch him, they set out to do just that and neglect their studies. Yumoto skillfully shows the transition of the boys and the crotchety and lonely old man as they become friends. The friends learn valuable lessons about both living and dying as the story and friendship with the old man comes to an end. This excellent novel gives middle school readers a first-hand look at Japanese education and culture as well as a heartwarming story about friendship and compassion.
VOYA - Susan R. Farber
This charming and gentle story of three boys who are friends in Japan reveals their gradual realization that death can be a celebration of a loved one's life. Kiyama, Kawabe, and Yamashita are awkward loners in the sixth grade when Yamashita's grandmother dies, leading the three boys to excitedly recite fearful stories of ghosts, gore, and nightmares. They decide to dispel their fears by seeing firsthand what really happens when someone dies by spying on an elderly, decrepit neighbor who, they assume, is certain to die soon. Day after day, they keep him under rather obvious surveillance until to their surprise, the formerly cantankerous old man befriends the boys and starts to take an interest in their lives and in himself. He becomes revitalized and together they clean up his house and garden, share meals, and most importantly, share their innermost feelings. Months later, when the boys find the old man dead in his bed, they realize just how much they have gained from their relationship. More humorous and aimed at a younger audience than Zindel's ground-breaking The Pigman (Bantam, 1968), this novel has the added attraction of a foreign setting which will intrigue readers unfamiliar with daily life in Japan. Kiyama is a likeable little boy who is just on the cusp of adolescence, and his adventures at school will be instantly familiar to students between grades five and seven. The translation is well done and smooth, and even concepts such as "cram school" will be understood in the context of the story. Librarians will feel comfortable recommending this novel to boys and girls alike. VOYA Codes: 4Q 3P M J (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses, Will appeal with pushing, Middle School-defined as grades 6 to 8 and Junior High-defined as grades 7 to 9).
From the review of the audiobook in KLIATT, March 1999: Three sixth graders, Yamashita, Kiyama and Kowalee, become obsessed with death and want to see a dead body, so they follow an old man who they assume is about to die. They see him go to the local store and find that he is not eating properly. Yamashita feels sorry for the old man and gives him sashimi; Kiyama cleans up the old man's garbage. Their attention makes the old man more energetic and he teaches them useful skills. They in turn find the wife he abandoned during the war. The old man dies in his sleep and the boys discover his body; death loses its horror for them. This coming-of-age story is true to the human verities of the heart. Japanese children deal with the same problems as children face in Americaa mother who drinks, giggling girls, taunting peers, a bitter divorce, prep school stress, finding a place in the world. KLIATT Codes: JRecommended for junior high school students. 1996, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 170p., Ages 12 to 15.
School Library Journal
Gr 4-6-A book about death that espouses the pure joy in life. Sixth-grader Yamashita has just attended his grandmother's funeral. Since he barely has any memories of his elderly relative, he merely relates mundane details to his friends, Kawabe and Kiyama, leaving their curiosity unsatisfied. With typical childlike logic, the three schoolboys decide to discover more about death by haunting an old man, who, they reason, is going to die soon. As these youngsters become more involved in the life of the elderly neighbor and, in fact bond with him, their friendship and understanding of one another deepens and grows. Readers will take great pleasure in knowing these younsters, whose lives are far from perfect, but who are real and funny. This book stays firmly rooted in the country and culture from which it came, while telling the universal story of our perennial fascination with death, love, bravery, and ghosts. The point is subtly made that reverence for life goes on amid unpleasant details. The translation from the Japanese is grounded in a vocabulary most children will know except for certain terms, such as "cram school," which are explained, and "sushi," which shouldn't be hard to look up.-Carol A. Edwards, Minneapolis Public Library
Read an Excerpt
An Excerpt from The Friends
I count my breaths when I lie in bed. One, two, three, four, five, six.
. .fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. . .After thirty I fall asleep.
Sleep wraps itself around me and pulls me under, but sometimes I float back
to the surface like an old shoe in water and I start counting again from
the beginning. One, two, three, four. . .
A long time ago I read that in one lifetime a person breaths from six hundred
million to eight hundred million times, and I couldn't stop trying to count
my breaths all day. It was in second grade, I think. But as I'd count, I
wouldn't be able to keep breathing. When the lack of air became unbearable,
I would burst out coughing and have to start counting all over again. I
counted during class and even while I was eating. I'd gasp and cough so
often that my mother would get irritated and say, "Stop that coughing!"
But I didn't know how.
In bed at night I would cry and scream, "I can't breathe! I've forgotten
how! I'm going to die! Mom!" At first my mother would sit by my pillow or
bring me warm milk to drink. This would calm me for a while, but as soon
as she left I would be overcome by the same fear. "I can't breathe! I'm
going to die!"
I don't need to call my mother anymore, but I still count my breaths before
I go to sleep. How many times have I breathed since I was born? If we breathe
eight hundred million times in eighty years, then at twelve I must have
breathed 120 million times.One hundred and twenty million little puffs
of air have passed through my lungs. How many more times will this go on?
Someday it will just stop, as though suddenly cut off. At five, eight, nine
hundred million times. And then. . .where will I go? Or maybe there is no
place to go.
I try to stop breathing. I shove my face in my pillow and count. One, two,
three. . .thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. . .thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two,
thirty-three, thirty-four. . .I close my eyes tightly. Yellow lights flicker
in the darkness, becoming a field of yellow flowers. My body starts to float
as though I am a bird looking down on the field. No, a fire. The yellow
flowers become little flames rising higher and spreading around them, forming
a sea of flame. Someone stands there. Their feet are covered in flame and
they wave to me. Who is it? But there it ends. I cannot stand it any longer
and my whole body gasps for air.
My uncle told me a long, long time ago when I was little that dying means
to stop breathing. And for a long time I believed it. But now I know that
that's not true. Living is more than just breathing. So dying must be more,