A Scarf for Keiko – Ann Malaspina and Merrilee Liddiard, Kar-Ben Publishing, 2019
Every once in a while a children’s book comes along which seems to fully and originally satisfy its intentions. A Scarf for Keiko is one of those books. It is the story of a friendship between a Jewish boy and a Japanese-American girl in World War II era Los Angeles, in the Boyle Heights neighborhood where their two communities shared a common home. It’s about the tragedy of Roosevelt’s decision to enact Executive Order 9066, interning innocent people in relocation camps due to unjust suspicions of their loyalty. It’s also the story of a child learning that passively going along with bullies is wrong, and that the values which his parents have taught him will strengthen his resolve to ignore the warnings of his egg-throwing racist neighbors. It does all this without simply preaching to the inevitable choir of people who like progressive children’s books. Merrilee Liddiard‘s graphic novel-style illustrations add a dimension of contemporary tastes to realistic settings of a now distant era. This is a great book.
Sam’s older brother is away fighting in the War, putting a great deal of pressure on him just to emotionally survive. So when his well-meaning teacher promotes a school project of knitting for the soldiers, Sam’s apparent incompetence has his “stomach tied up in knots like the yarn on his desk.” His friend, Keiko, on the other hand, effortlessly creates rows of beautiful stitches. Her skills and her patriotism are not rewarded by classmates who taunt and bully her. Sam’s friend Jack is convinced that Sam’s brother would not want him to even speak to Keiko, and Sam’s response, natural to a terrified child, is the morally meaningless, “ I didn’t talk to her…She talked to me.”
Sam soon witnesses senseless destruction of Japanese-American’s property, including at the Saito family’s shop where he is sent to buy flowers for Shabbos. Liddiard draws Mr. Saito, neatly dressed with period details of cuffed pants and plaid vest, as he sadly sweeps broken glass from the street, a terrible echo of the violence perpetrated against Europe’s Jews. Worse, Sam learns that Keiko and her family are being sent to a camp in the desert. Simple language and expressive pictures combine to illustrate Sam’s mother’s gesture of solidarity: “How long will they be away? Sam asked. Mom sighed. No one knows.” The Saitos’ elegant tea set sits on the table, where Sam’s mother has promised to protect it while they are gone.
This is a book for young readers. It is not intended to detail life in the “relocation centers,” as they were euphemistically called, but Ann Malaspina’s detailed “Author’s Note “and photographs explain the destructive effects of the policy. Sam and Keiko remain hopeful friends, and the knitting continues. Sam may not be as gifted in this area as Keiko, but it’s enough for him to follow his teacher’s instructions:
“Pick up the yarn.
Wrap it around the needle.
Pull the stitch through…
Come home safely.”