This post is by NCTE member, Kathleen Burkinshaw.
As with most things in life, my path to writing and presenting historical fiction to classrooms took a roundabout route. During my daughter’s elementary school years, I went to her class each year, read a picture book about Japanese culture, and led a Japanese craft related to the book I read.
When my daughter was in seventh grade, she still wanted me to visit her class, but for a different reason. She told me that her class’s section on WWII would be ending that week, and she overheard some students talking about seeing that “cool picture of the mushroom cloud.” She asked me if I could talk about her grandmother and all of the people who were under the now famous mushroom cloud.
When I was younger, my mother told me about losing her family and home in Hiroshima. But she had not given me any specific details of this event, because the memories were still too painful for her to discuss.
After my daughter’s request, my mother decided she was ready to tell me more of what had actually happened on the most horrific day of her life. She hoped by sharing her experience, students would realize that the use of nuclear weapons against any country or people, for any reason, is unacceptable.
My daughter just finished her first year of college, and I continue to visit that seventh grade class at her old school. Since then, I have presented to other local middle schools. Each year the students who have heard my presentation, which is nonpolitical, expressed their gratitude to my mother for sharing such a personal, traumatizing memory. Teachers began to include my presentation in their history curriculum because they felt that the lecture gave students new insight into how children lived during the war, as well as introducing the students to a topic and culture not previously known. Lastly, they learned that the Japanese children had the same hopes and fears as the children in the Allied countries.
I was encouraged to write The Last Cherry Blossom when teachers inquired if I had a book to complement my discussion that they could add to their class reading list. I wanted to write this book not just to honor my mother and her family, but to honor all the people who suffered or died from the effects of pika don (“flash boom,” a term that has been incorporated into the Japanese language as a result of the atomic bombs) I want readers to know that the victims were all someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, or child.
Originally, scientists said nothing would grow again in Hiroshima for many years after the bomb was dropped. Yet the cherry blossoms bloomed again the following spring. The cherry blossoms endured much like the spirit of the people affected by the bombing in Hiroshima.
The Last Cherry Blossom publishes in August. It’s a bittersweet time. My mom passed away in January 2015. However, she did read the latest draft (at that time) of the manuscript and she knew it was going to be published.
Last summer my family visited Hiroshima to honor my mother at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial wall. Standing on the same ground where she experienced so much loss and destruction when she was only twelve years old broke my heart.
My mother lost so much that fateful day, yet she gained an inner strength she never thought possible. The love she had given my daughter and me proved that love prevails over fear.
Kathleen Burkinshaw resides in Charlotte, NC. She’s a wife, mom to a daughter in college (dreading the reality of being an empty nester-most of the time), and owns a dog who is a kitchen ninja.