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Nobody Knows

Nobody Knows

by Shelley Tanaka

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It’s autumn in Tokyo, and twelve-year-old Akira and his younger siblings, Kyoko, Shige and little Yuki, have just moved into a new apartment with their mother. Akira hopes it’s a new start for all of them, even though the little ones are not allowed to leave the apartment or make any noise, since the landlord doesn’t permit young children in the


It’s autumn in Tokyo, and twelve-year-old Akira and his younger siblings, Kyoko, Shige and little Yuki, have just moved into a new apartment with their mother. Akira hopes it’s a new start for all of them, even though the little ones are not allowed to leave the apartment or make any noise, since the landlord doesn’t permit young children in the building. But their mother soon begins to spend more and more time away from the apartment, and then one morning Akira finds an envelope of money and a note. She has gone away with her new boyfriend for a while.

Akira bravely shoulders the responsibility for the family. He shops and cooks and pays the bills, while Kyoko does the laundry. The children spend their time watching TV, drawing and playing games, wishing they could go to school and have friends like everyone else. Then one morning their mother breezes in with gifts for everyone, but she is soon gone again.

Months pass, until one spring day Akira decides they have been prisoners in the apartment long enough. For a brief time the children bask in their freedom. They shop, explore, plant a little balcony garden, have the playground to themselves. Even when the bank account is empty and the utilities are turned off and the children become increasingly ill-kempt, it seems that they have been hiding for nothing. In the bustling big city, nobody notices them. It’s as if nobody knows.

But by August the city is sweltering, and the children are too malnourished and exhausted even to go out. Akira is afraid to contact child welfare, remembering the last time the authorities intervened, and the family was split up. Eventually even he can’t hold it together any more, and then one day tragedy strikes…

Based on the award-winning film by Kore-eda Hirokazu, this is a powerfully moving novel about four children who become invisible to almost everyone in their community and manage — for a time — to survive on their own

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"That blindness is the shocking part of the story, and with lucid, simple prose and occasional black-and-white photos from the film, this novel will raise universal questions: what could be happening on your street?" — Booklist

"Well-chosen black-and-white photographic stills from the film deepen the novel's breathtaking realism." —The Horn Book

"Akira looked around the apartment. At the garbage, the mess. The filthy sheets and quilts that they couldn’t wash anymore because there was no water. At Shige’s dirty feet, Kyoko clutching their mother’s blouse with the white flowers on it. At Yuki’s big, big eyes just staring at him."
— from the book

Kirkus Reviews
The spare, heartbreaking tale of four children struggling to make do after their mother abandons them in a Tokyo apartment. Smuggled into a "No Children" flat and forbidden to go to school or even venture outdoors except to run quick errands, Akira, Kyoko, Shigeru and Yuki--12, 10, 8 and 4 respectively--live for their hard-partying mother's increasingly rare appearances. By winter, she and the money she occasionally sends are gone completely, but the children, knowing that they would be split up if they asked openly for help, remain in hiding--even after Yuki, the youngest, takes a fatal fall and is quietly, sadly buried in a suitcase with chocolates and her favorite toy. Tanaka's narrative is a novelization of a 2004 Japanese film inspired by true events; though the children's situation would probably not have gone unremarked so long in this country, there is certainly a universal element in her observation that "[n]obody seemed to notice four kids living on their own right under their noses. It was as though the children were invisible." Yuki's death isn't the only shocker here, but the author consistently describes disturbing incidents in oblique ways and, echoed in the film stills thinly scattered throughout, adopts a tone more poignant than outraged. A tale without a tidy end, all the more tragic for being told in such a simple, low-key way. (Fiction. 11-14)
Children's Literature - Elisabeth Greenberg
Akira, standing as tall as he can, moves into a new no-children-allowed apartment with his mother, and so do his three younger siblings, although secretly. Then the mother leaves, and Akira is left in charge with a number of rules to keep the younger children hidden and an envelope of money. They survive on convenience store food, but hunger instead for school, a chance to play outside, the warmth of a mother's love, and best friends. In the end, hunger, poverty and desire overwhelm them, with the children gradually slipping outside when their water and electricity are cut off, becoming listless from malnutrition, and seeking friends, often false, among their peers. The spare prose is haunting as the reader is brought completely into the mind of the children and their desperate attempt to support each other in a society that doesn't want to see them or their need. The occasional bit of care offered by a convenience store clerk or another young girl who gets money off men isn't enough to shield the small family from the death of the youngest. Buried carefully with her favorite toys in the suitcase in which she arrived at the apartment, this small child is the symbol of abandonment. This book, based on a Japanese film about a true incident, is lightened by the closeness of the bond between the children, so that all can share the younger son's excitement when he finds a coin in a vending machine at the end or Akira's delight at playing baseball for the first time, but it doesn't spare the reader from the knowledge that children can be abandoned in many different ways. Reviewer: Elisabeth Greenberg
School Library Journal
Gr 6–9—Based on a true story and made into a film by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, this novelization is powerful and disturbing. Twelve-year-old Akira Fukushima must care for his three younger siblings after being abandoned by their irresponsible mother in their Tokyo apartment. Supplied, although infrequently, with money in the mail from her, Akira must budget, cook, and shop, all while keeping his siblings hidden in their home/prison. The last admonishment given by their mother was to stay out of sight and make no noise. (The landlord does not allow children in the building.) Through haunting prose, Tanaka takes readers inside the head of young Akira as he struggles to maintain the lives of the family. Without food, electricity, heat, or water, tragedy strikes. In a deeply moving, starkly realistic ending, readers are left wondering, How could this happen? The book provides no answers. For mature readers, this story might lend itself to a discussion of what the children could have done to get help. An additional discussion could center on the social responsibility of the community in which the children lived.—D. Maria LaRocco, Cuyahoga Public Library, Strongsville, OH

Product Details

Groundwood Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.60(d)
580L (what's this?)
Age Range:
10 Years

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Meet the Author

Shelley Tanaka is an award-winning author, translator, and editor. She teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts, in the MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Shelley lives in Kingston, Ontario.

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