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Hiroshima No Pika


by Toshi Maruki

Sobering.  Riveting.  Terrifying.  Agonizing.  Horrifying.  All of these adjectives apply to Hiroshima No Pika, Toshi Maruki's fictionalized account of seven-year-old Mii and her family, who are enjoying a relatively normal day in their Hiroshima, Japan, home when U.S. forces drop an atomic bomb on the city.  Based on one woman's true experience,  Mii and her parents are at home on a lovely summer day, "breakfasting on sweet potatoes," when "the Flash" caused by dropping the atomic bomb struck "like thousands of lightning bolts striking all at once."
Carrying her wounded and burned husband on her back, Mother and Mii run for safety.   Horrific images surround them - "children with their clothes burned away, lips and eyelids swollen . . . heaps of people everywhere" - even in the river.  Mii sees a sparrow at her feet, hopping, hopping.  Its wings are burned and it cannot fly.
Mii never grows after the Flash, physically remaining the same size.   Father appears to recover but later dies from radiation sickness; this happens with many people who initially survive.
Now on August 9, the people of Hiroshima gather to remember.  They inscribe the names of their loved ones on lanterns that they light and set adrift on the rivers that flow through Hiroshima.  Mii "'writes 'Father' on one lantern and 'The Swallow' on another."  Poignantly, pointedly, Mii says, "it can't happen again . . . if no one drops the bomb."
Cultural markers pointing to Japan, its people and customs are evident from the first pages of the text, beginning with city names.  We see Mii and her family kneeling while eating their sweet potato breakfast, and Mother's toes peep out from beneath her kimono.  Sandals sit off to one side of the room, waiting to be worn again.  Father is eating with his chopsticks.  A teapot adorns the table.  There are no further cultural markers until the threesome reach the beach; in the distance, we can see a temple, enshrouded in fog.  At the beach, Mii eats a "rice ball" given to her by an old woman.  Later, we see Mii in a typical Japanese schoolgirl's uniform.  At the end, we see people dressed in kimonos, reverently placing lighted red-orange lanterns adrift in a river.
What techniques and images does Maruki employ in this picture book to help the reader understand a horror that words cannot sufficiently describe?
Maruki's  "powerful, expressionistic illustrations"[i] begin by showing pre-Flash activities, colorful and purposeful.  Olive-drab-clad soldiers and bright-blue-clad residents go about their morning business at what appears to be a lively pace.  The bright blues connect us to the blue kimonos in the next scene, a peaceful breakfast at Mii's house.  In the house, a warm gold floor covering gives a cozy feel.
The Flash is illustrated on the following two pages.  Strong diagonal lines of orange and black, like beams of a house thrown askew, form the backdrop.  Everyone and everything has been tossed into the air, bowls spilling, tumbling, table upturned.  The ceiling light has fallen.  The family appears to be moving through the air.
The wave of fire that follows fills the page and threatens to engulf the tiny, human figures in the foreground.  Most are naked or nearly so, their clothes burned off.  Swirls of hot red and orange portray the fire and its heat, and through the fire we catch glimpses of the charred blackness that is all that will remain of the city.
People - and corpses - in the following pages are drawn with black, heavy outlines.  Cohn[ii] describes the people as anchored, "weighed-down, unable to escape the apocalyptic scene."  A mix of flowing, curved lines emphasizes the victims' flight, confusion and fear.  A "dismal, muddy palette"[iii] of greens, browns and blacks are used for skin and hair, hinting at wounded, burned flesh.  Mii and her mother are often small in proportion to the mass of terrified, hurt, and fleeing humanity, as if to emphasize the numbers of people fleeing.  In some illustrations, we see people with shock, fear or despair on their faces.
Many readers have seen photographs of Hiroshima after the bomb was dropped - a black-and-white testimony of the destruction.  In like manner, Maruki portrays Hiroshima in the aftermath of the destruction in harsh black, grays, and white, with a few touches of brownish metals.  Mii and Mother stand viewing the scene, a contrast in colorful clothing, encircled by a stark, irregularly shaped circle whose bright whiteness emphasizes the shock they must feel.  Circles upon circles depict the rubble that was once a thriving city.
An even more heartrending scene follows, as Maruki describes the effects of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.  A line of flame surmounted by a wave of dense, black smoke, advances toward us, while piled bodies and terrified survivors clawing to escape are clustered in the foreground.  Symbolic, simple kimonos float through the sky, as if to represent the heaven-bound souls of the thousands who were killed.
In the afterword, Maruki notes:
I am now past seventy years old.  I have neither children nor grandchildren.  But I have written this book for grandchildren everywhere.  It took me a long time to complete it.  It is very difficult to tell young people about something very bad that happened, in the hope that their knowing will keep it from happening again.
This book has been the subject of debate over its "intended audience."  Although the book ends on a hopeful note ("It can't happen again . . . if no one drops the bomb"), some reviewers believe that this is not "explicitly hopeful enough to reassure younger readers."[iv]
[i] Something About the Author [SATA] 112, s.v. "Maruki, Toshi."
[ii] Cohn, Amy L. 1982. Review of Hiroshima No Pika. School Library Journal 28 (10): 119. 
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] SATA 112.
Maruki, Toshi. 19[82]. Hiroshima no pika. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books.  First published in Japan by Komine Shoten Co., 1980. ISBN 0-688-012927-3
This review was written for a graduate course in Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

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