Flying the Dragon by Natalie Dias Lorenzi
Soccer-loving fifth-grader Skye lives in Virginia, just outside DC, with her American mother and her Japanese father. Her best friend recently moved to San Francisco, but Skye’s getting to know her All-Star teammates better now that she’s finally made the team.
On the other side of the world, Hiroshi is excitedly preparing for the annual rokkaku kite battle in his native village, gently guided and encouraged by his grandfather, himself a master kitebuilder and longtime champion.
For 11 years, Skye and Hiroshi didn’t even know the other existed. Then suddenly, they’re living in the same neighborhood, going to the same school, and sharing the same grandfather. Skye and Hiroshi are cousins, whose fathers are twins, separated until now by a family misunderstanding. Seeking the latest treatment for the grandfather’s illness, Hiroshi’s parents have moved the family to Virginia, finally mending the longstanding rift.
With all they have in common, Skye and Hiroshi initially have a difficult time accepting one another … and their jarring new family situation. Skye is confronted with family members she never knew she had; in order to get to know them better, especially her grandfather, she must quickly strengthen her Japanese language skills. If she can’t get into the advanced language class, she’ll also risk losing her spot on the All-Star team which meets to practice at the same time as the less-advanced class.
Hiroshi is completely adrift, struggling in his English as a Second Language class, longing for the familiarity of home, not to mention his once exclusive relationship with his grandfather whom he must now share. With patience and kites, of course, the grandfather brings the cousins together, little by little, story by story … before it’s too late …
First-time novelist Natalie Dias Lorenzi writes a tender story about cultural disconnect, even in one’s own family. I might argue over a few details – the severity of Skye’s initial embarrassment over being associated with her (foreign) cousin at school, as well as Skye’s schoolmates’ overreaction to either her father or Skye herself speaking Japanese, seemed a bit exaggerated as the DC-area population, especially in Northern Virginia where Skye’s family lives, is hugely international, and multiple languages and cultural practices can be heard and seen on just about any street corner. That said, Lorenzi is especially insightful and sensitive to the hapa issues Skye faces, of not being American enough with an immigrant father, and not Japanese enough among her language school classmates or her newly-arrived relatives. Lorenzi’s personal experience as an ESL teacher, as well as her years abroad living in Japan (and Italy), also gives her novel a comfortable sense of authenticity; her “Acknowledgements” at book’s end is also proof of her careful research.
Slight quibbles aside, Skye and Hiroshi’s growing relationship is warmly tear-inducing, while the grandfather’s faraway stories about his beloved, late wife will keep the waterworks streaming. Young readers and their (jaded) parents both will find a resonating, touching story here, a welcome reminder to the power of family ties, strange and foreign as they might initially seem.
Readers: Middle Grade