Sylvia & Aki

Sylvia & Aki

by Winifred Conkling

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Young Sylvia Mendez never expected to be at the center of a landmark legal battle. Young Aki Munemitsu never expected to be sent away from her home and her life as she knew it. The two girls definitely never expected to know each other, until their lives intersected on a Southern California farm in a way that changed the country forever. Who are Sylvia and Aki? And

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Young Sylvia Mendez never expected to be at the center of a landmark legal battle. Young Aki Munemitsu never expected to be sent away from her home and her life as she knew it. The two girls definitely never expected to know each other, until their lives intersected on a Southern California farm in a way that changed the country forever. Who are Sylvia and Aki? And why did their family stories matter then and still matter today? This book reveals the remarkable, never-before-told story—based on true events—of Mendez vs. Westminster School District, the California court case that desegregated schools for Latino children and set the stage for Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education at the national level.

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Laura J. Brown
This is the story to two little girls, Sylvia who is Mexican, and Aki, who is Japanese, who have many things in common. One thing they have in common is that they are both Americans, but not being treated like Americans. These little girls both live in California in the 1940s and are both impacted greatly by the events of World War II and the mind set of many fellow Americans at the time. Both girls' families were farmers and loved the land. Aki's family was forced to leave their farm and go to a Japanese internment camp in the Arizona desert, and it was Sylvia's family who leased Aki's family farm while they were gone. Sylvia loved her new home on the farm, but was deeply saddened that Mexican children like her were not welcomed at the local school and had to travel to the "Mexican school" that was separate, but not equal. These two young girls had no idea what they and their families were going to face, and how difficult life could be, but each of them reached out and supported each other and their families and the result was victories for people of all races in the United States. This is a charming and insightful book that tells the story of racial segregation with the backdrop of World War II through two young girls who lived it. This story is based on true events and is well told. Reviewer: Laura J. Brown
School Library Journal
Gr 4–6—Sylvia Mendez is excited to be living on a rented southern California farm where her father is the boss instead of a field hand. She dreams of her first day of third grade at Westminster School and is devastated when her aunt is told that she and her siblings cannot register. They have to go to the Hoover School next to the barrio since they are "Mexican." That Sylvia is American does not matter. Meanwhile Aki Munemitsu, the girl who used to live on the farm, has been moved to Poston, a Japanese internment camp in Arizona, with her mother and brother. She, too, is American, but Pearl Harbor has made that irrelevant. Aki misses her room, her belongings, and her privacy. Told in alternating chapters from the girls' points of view, this story about institutional racism will enlighten readers to events in recent history. From the court case of Mendez v. Westminster to the conditions at Poston, readers will be moved by this novel based on true events. Back matter include notes about the Mendez and Munemitsu families, essays on internment camps and the end of school segregation, and photos of Sylvia and Aki as children.—Stacy Dillon, LREI, New York City
Kirkus Reviews

Two third-grade girls in California suffer the dehumanizing effects of racial segregation after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in 1942 in this moving story based on true events in the lives of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu.

Japanese-American Aki and her family operate an asparagus farm in Westminster, Calif., until they are summarily uprooted and dispatched to an internment camp in Poston, Ariz., for the duration of World War II. As Aki endures the humiliation and deprivation of the hot, cramped barracks, she wonders if there's "something wrong with being Japanese." Sylvia's Mexican-American family leases the Munemitsu farm. She expects to attend the local school but faces disappointment when authorities assign her to a separate, second-rate school for Mexican kids. In response, Sylvia's father brings a legal action against the school district arguing against segregation in what eventually becomes a successful landmark case. Their lives intersect after Sylvia finds Aki's doll, meets her in Poston and sends her letters. Working with material from interviews, Conkling alternates between Aki and Sylvia's stories, telling them in the third person from the war's start in 1942 through its end in 1945, with an epilogue updating Sylvia's story to 1955.

A well-documented, quietly powerful story. (afterword, further reading, bibliography & photographs) (Historical fiction. 9-12)

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Product Details

Random House Children's Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.20(d)
760L (what's this?)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

   "Excuse me, ma’am," Aunt Soledad said to the secretary. "May I have several more forms? For my brother’s children?"
   The woman stopped typing again. She looked at Sylvia and her brothers as if noticing them for the first time. "Are these your children?"
   "No," Aunt Soledad said. "These two are mine." She rested one hand on Alice’s shoulder and the other on Virginia’s. "They’ll be entering third and fourth grade." Sylvia looked at her cousins. They had fair skin and wore their long wavy brown hair in tight curls tied back from their faces with navy ribbons.
   "These are my brother’s children," Aunt Soledad said, gesturing at Sylvia and her two brothers, all three alike with warm brown skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. Jerome and Gonzalo had broad, friendly smiles and neatly combed hair. Sylvia wore her own hair in two straight braids, with a red bow pinned above her right ear. She tried to smile, too, but something in the way the woman was looking at them made her uneasy.
   "What are their names?" the secretary asked with a sigh.
   "Mendez: Sylvia, Gonzalo junior, and Jerome."
   The woman held up her hand to interrupt Sylvia’s aunt. "The Mendez children will need to register at Hoover School, the Mexican school."
   "What? No," Aunt Soledad objected. "I want all of the children in the same school. Both families live here in Westminster."
   "Mexican children go to the Mexican school," the woman insisted.
   "But we live here," Aunt Soledad repeated. "All of us. Together." Sylvia and her family lived in the main house on the farm, while Aunt Soledad and her family lived in one of the smaller caretakers’ houses.
   "I’m sorry, but there is nothing I can do about the rules," the woman said, noisily shutting the desk drawer.
   The trouble started on a Sunday afternoon. It was December 7, 1941. Aki sat at the dining room table with her math homework spread out before her. It was problems in long division: two-digit divisors into four-digit dividends, with remainders. From time to time Aki repeated her teacher’s instructions: "Find the quotient; check your work." In the kitchen, her mother cleaned up the lunch dishes while the radio played a piano sonata. Aki’s head was filled with numbers and music.
   And then the music stopped.
   "We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin," said a man’s deep, serious voice. "The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air."
   Aki laid down her pencil and went to the kitchen. Her mother stood by the sink with her right hand over her mouth. They both stared at the radio, listening closely to every word. Together they learned that at 7:53 a.m. Hawaii time, Japanese airplanes had bombed the United States naval station at Pearl Harbor. No one knew how many Americans were dead or how many ships had been destroyed.
   When the report ended, Aki asked, "What does this mean?"
   "War," her mother said. "It means there will be war."

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