Flying the Dragon
by Natalie Dias Lorenzi
Pub Date: July 2012
Level: Middle Grade/Ages 9-up
Natalie Dias Lorenzi’s eloquent middle grade debut, Flying the Skies, told in alternating narrative is about two cousins from different worlds who overcome vast cultural differences to find common ground. Fifth-grader Skye Tsuki lives with her Japanese-born father, Issei, and American mother, Cathy in Virginia, and has just found out she’s made the All-Star soccer team. But Skye knows something is up with her folks, especially her dad, who hasn’t been acting like himself lately. “The first sign of trouble was when her dad switched from silverware to chopsticks. Maybe she shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, her dad was Japanese. Sort of. He’d been born and raised in Japan but hadn’t been back since he married her mom. To Skye he was pretty much American.” (pg. 1) Her suspicions are soon confirmed when her parents tell her that she must take Japanese language lessons, which unfortunately conflict with soccer practice. Skye learns that Issei’s father is very ill, and will be traveling to the United States for medical treatment; in order to properly communicate with her grandfather, Skye needs to improve her rudimentary Japanese. Also accompanying Grandfather is Skye’s cousin, Hiroshi, and his parents.
Hiroshi is none too pleased about being uprooted from Japan to travel to America and visit relatives he doesn’t really know. More importantly, the trip coincides with his first rokkaku kite battle for which he and Grandfather (a master kite maker and rokkaku champion) have diligently prepared. Hiroshi and Skye’s initial meeting is awkward and confusing–both feel self-conscious around each other, which affects their ability to verbally communicate with each other. As Skye introduces herself to her Hiroshi, we learn that her birth name is Sorano (“of the sky” in Japanese), but that she changed it years earlier to avoid explaining her background to her inquisitive classmates. Names are often the very first clue about a person’s ethnic/cultural heritage; for many, a name reveals family origins, even right down to what town/city you’re from. But for Skye, it’s easier and less complicated to blend in by using a Westernized version of her birth name.
Lorenzi astutely captures Skye’s feelings about straddling two cultures. “She wasn’t pretty like the Ambers of the world or even pretty like the Chinese American Lucy Lius of the world. Skye was somewhere in the middle–not Asian, not white. Caucasian applied perfectly to her–’Asian’ hiding in a word meaning ‘white.’” (pg. 33) Indeed, with the arrival of Grandfather and Hiroshi, Skye finds herself caught between her Japanese and American identities. At school, she is embarrassed to be seen conversing with her cousin in Japanese, but at home, she longs for the deep connection Hiroshi has with their grandfather. Hiroshi also feels lost, and struggles to get his bearings in Virginia. The only thing that keeps him going is his time spent with Grandfather, flying kites in the park. However, when Grandfather suggests including Skye in their excursions, Hiroshi wrestles with jealousy. Skye also begins to realize how fleeting and precious her moments are with her grandfather. She endeavors to see him more, knowing but not caring that Hiroshi sees her as an interloper.
However, there are moments when the tension eases between Hiroshi and Skye. Observing her classmates’ insensitivity towards Hiroshi, Skye shares language tips with her cousin, teaching him how to use American slang/colloquialisms. By novel’s end, both cousins have developed a friendship, bonded together by their mutual love and respect for Grandfather. Skye grows throughout the book, and we see her eventually take pride and ownership of her Japanese heritage.
The storytelling is so authentic and palpable that readers will relate equally to Skye and Hiroshi. Both characters are fully realized, and Lorenzi adroitly maps out their flaws and strengths, adding dimension to the story. Lorenzi also expertly covers complex family dynamics as seen in the reasons behind Issei’s estrangement from his family in Japan, following his marriage to Cathy. There are so many things going on in this book, but rather than feeling bogged down by it all, readers will feel as though they’re peeling back layers, and getting more invested in the characters and their plights.
I especially loved the multi-generational component in this novel – as I mentioned in an earlier review on this blog, the relationship between different generations is a significant element in multicultural storytelling. Grandfather’s relationships with Hiroshi and Skye are uniquely defined–he bonds with Hiroshi over kite-making and shares tender stories about Grandmother with Skye. You’ll want to have Kleenex while reading, just sayin’.
Readers will also appreciate Lorenzi’s detailed research of Japanese culture, evident in the many Japanese phrases and kanji included throughout the book. Flawless writing, nuanced storytelling, and reverence and respect for diversity make this book a treasure.
For more on Natalie Dias Lorenzi and her writing process, check out these fabulous interviews:
Finished book for review kindly provided by Charlesbridge.