Going nuclear? A recent, award-winning picture book; another acclaimed, older picture book; and some classic and in-progress graphic novels remind us just how terrible this military choice has been. These works center upon the World War II atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Last month’s visit of Japanese Prime Minister Abe to the U. S., along with President Trump’s ongoing, careless remarks about expanding our own and other national nuclear arsenals, solidified my focus for today’s blog post. In fact, I almost ‘went nuclear’ myself contemplating any presidential directives or government policies that might emerge from such recklessness.
Survivors of atomic bombing eloquently testify to its horrors. Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story (2016), written by Caren Stelson, recently won a Silbert Honor Award among other accolades for its sensitive rendering of Sachiko Yusui’s experiences. Six years old in 1945 when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan, Sachiko remarkably survived this attack but has been affected lifelong by it and its aftermath. A city in ruins and chaos; family deaths; radiation sickness and later cancer; and social stigma within Japan are all described here.
Stelson’s book skillfully interweaves Sachiko’s impressions and beliefs with clear, thorough sidebars that place these experiences within historical context. These even-handed accounts satisfied me as an adult reader even as I perceived how useful they would be for tweens and teens. Similarly, the front and back material here–including maps, timelines, a family tree, and a glossary—are useful, visually-striking aids for all readers. Those of us interested in book “backgrounds” will also appreciate the author’s Preface and end Note, explaining what inspired Stelson to write the book, how she interviewed now-elderly Sachiko in Japan, and how she has remained in touch with Sachiko and her peace initiatives. (Stelson is, as I am, a Twin Cities resident, and her first meeting with Sachiko here in 2005 at a local Peace Garden event heightened my interest in her author’s journey.)
Striking words and photographs propel the pace of this biography, which appropriately emphasizes events in 1945 day by day before moving post-war to monthly and later yearly accounts. Powerfully short, percussive sentences detail Sachiko’s experiences. Even before the atomic bomb, frequent air raids on Nagasaki led to “Nights turned to nightmares.” Fearful school officials had shut down her school, disappointing Sachiko, who had looked forward to starting first grade. She was instead playing house on August 9, 1945 when
An eerie, blinding light burst in the sky. Reds, blues, greens spiraled. Hot, deafening, hurricane-force winds roared, and at the center of the explosion, a giant fireball flamed, hotter than the surface of the sun.
The earth shuddered.
Sachiko shot up into the air.
She slammed down into the ground.
Stones, tiles, branches, leaves rained on top of her. Piled up. Pushed her down. Buried her. Dirt poured into her nose and mouth.
Photographs, including one of the family’s treasured “grandmother bowl” which miraculously remained intact, illustrate these and other vividly detailed experiences. In side bars, wartime propaganda posters also show how each enemy dehumanized the other, while photographs are again important as Stelson recounts how global proponents of peace and non-violence influenced Sachiko. Mahatma Gandhi, Helen Keller, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are her idols. In late adulthood, she became a spokesperson for peace. Sachiko’s words are the book’s telling epigraph: “What happened to me must never happen to you.”
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima, three days earlier on August 6, 1945, has also led to a memorable body of works by survivors. The simpler, shorter text of Junko Morimoto’s picture book My Hiroshima (1992; 2014) makes it more accessible to younger, elementary school readers than Sachiko’s biography. Yet this author/illustrator’s sparse words combine eloquently with her powerfully drawn images, moving readers of all ages.
She uses color and image placement to great effect, with subtle hues and delicate lines reflecting daily life before the bombing. Darker hues and rougher figures with greater shading convey the devastation brought by the A-bomb, a drawing of its fiery flare immediately contrasted with a black-and-white, double-spread photograph of decimated Hiroshima. One double spread, wordless illustration—a three-layered view of the bomb mushrooming in a bright blue sky, bracketed top and bottom by darker flurries of explosively whirling, broken bodies—is stunning in design and execution. Some of these images in rearranged order appear in an affecting 2012 interview with Junko Morimoto. Available on-line, this ten minute talk updates us about Junko’s life as an adult, including her ongoing efforts to promote peace and nuclear disarmament. As part of these efforts, My Hiroshima is currently taught in all of that city’s elementary and junior high schools.
I blogged here in April, 2014 about Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa’s powerful, ten volume graphic novel Barefoot Gen (1975 onward; 2004 –2010). Strongly autobiographical, the brutal black-and-white drawings of this renowned series depict its author/illustrator’s experiences as a six-year-old (here named “Gen”) when the A-bomb hit. He saw and heard his father and brother die in its immediate aftermath, pinned under remnants of their wooden house as it burned. Keiji and his mother were unable to rescue them. This scene, along with the burned, mutilated bodies of other survivors, figures on the final pages of volume one, A Cartoon History of Hiroshima. Volume two, The Day After, continues to depict the horrific physical aftermath of the attack, along with showing the ways in which survivors helped or refused to help others. The blunt, bold-lined images and stark narrative here make this classic series, translated into several languages, best suited to readers tween and older. Later volumes dealing with post World War II Japanese society would similarly be of most interest to these older readers.
Barefoot Gen had a powerful impact on Raina Telgemeier, another impressive graphic novelist I blogged about recently. In her September talk in the Twin Cities, she mentioned that Nakazawa’s series would figure in her next book, a graphic autobiography. In a recent interview, Telgmeier has explained further, noting that she was a ten-year old in fifth grade when she first read Barefoot Gen. She reveals, “I went through a nightmare of depression after that and felt it was my responsibility to tell everybody about this book and relay what had happened [in Hiroshima].” She was even more horrified when a few years later the U.S. became involved in wars in the Middle East. Fortunately, Barefoot Gen still later also had a positive impact on Telgemeier. She says that it taught her that comics “were one of the most powerful mediums to tell a story. I still carry that philosophy with me, that comics can do so much.”
I look forward to reading Telgemeier’s autobiography, now a work in progress, when it finally appears in print. There is no date set yet for that. In just another week, though, on March 7, another graphic novel related to atomic energy in Japan is scheduled for publication. Rather than bombs, it deals with nuclear power plants. In 2011, an earthquake and tsunami caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant in northern Japan to have three dangerous melt downs. Results of the radiation spewed out then are still being analyzed and debated. Author/illustrator Kazuto Tatsuta says that Ichi-F: A Worker’s Graphic Memoir of the Nuclear Power Plant (2015; 2017) is about daily life during the clean-up rather than the melt-downs themselves. Since nuclear power plants are a controversial topic world-wide, I am curious to see how and if this graphic novel remains as neutrally focused as its creator claims it is. Whether the topic is atomic bombs or atomic power plants, it is hard not to “go nuclear” when considering all the moral issues, political problems, and practical dangers these scientific achievements pose.