This middle grade story takes place during the summer when 12-year-old Summer Miyamoto joins her 67-year-old grandmother and grandfather, Obaachan and Jiichan, to work the wheat harvest. Ordinarily it would be her parents who did this job, but they had to go back to Japan for a family emergency.
Although her grandparents should be retired, the family needs the money. Jiichan is going to work as a combine driver for the Parker Harvesting work crew, while Obaachan, with the help of Summer, will cook the meals. Summer’s younger brother Jaz, who is probably somewhere on the autism spectrum (although Summer just thinks of him as “intense”), has no job to do. He ends up spending the days playing with LEGOs and wondering if he will ever get a friend.
When something happens to Jiichan and he can’t complete the harvesting, Summer is afraid their year of bad luck is far from over.
Discussion: This is a quiet story, but has a number of elements that make it memorable. During the break, Summer and Jaz are required to do schoolwork, and Summer is reading the book A Separate Peace by John Knowles. The plot follows 16-year-old Gene’s description of one year in his life, and what happened between him and his best friend Finny. Gene’s reflections on his fears, and on coming to terms with who he is, cause Summer to think about her own situation. In addition, Gene does something bad and finally confesses it. Summer does something not nearly as reprehensible, but it too requires that she take responsibility. And when Jiichan can’t finish the harvesting, Summer also has to confront her fears and sense of inadequacy, and do what it takes to make things right.
Another theme of the story is the relationship between the kids and their grandparents, and especially between Summer and her grandmother. Obaachan and Jiichan clearly love the kids, but they are older, don’t speak perfect English, and display cultural differences on top of the generational ones. In particular, they seem to have inhibitions against expressing affection. To the reader (or perhaps older reader), it is clear they love each other and the kids, but Summer doesn’t always understand their words and actions in that way. It makes for a very touching and realistic story.
Without being didactic, the author shows the cruelty of prejudice by the reactions of Summer. She is sensitive to societal discrimination against Asians, against class, and against kids who are different. She doesn’t act out her anger, however, but responds with tact and protectiveness. She also takes her Obaachan’s lessons to heart about trying to imbue her actions with thoughts love and forgiveness, because according to Obaachan, the results will be evident to all.
Evaluation: This is a lovely, compelling story, with humor and heart and many subtle lessons, gently imparted.
Note: The book features occasional illustrations by Julia Kuo.
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2013
Note: This book was the 2013 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature