Sylvia & Aki by Winifred Conkling
Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu shared the same yellow bedroom as young children, just not at the same time. While Aki and her family were imprisoned in Poston, Arizona during World War II for no other reason than their Japanese heritage, Sylvia and her family leased the Munemitsus’ asparagus farm in Westminster, California and lived in their home.
Winifred Conkling debuts her first novel for children (after 30+ adult nonfiction titles) based on real events: Sylvia and Aki are not only real people, but they’re also everyday heroes, too.
Sylvia and her brothers, the children of a Mexican immigrant father and a Puerto Rican American mother, were barred from attending their all-white neighborhood school. They were sent to the “Mexican” school further away from their home, for an education that was definitely separate but hardly equal. Sylvia’s father Gonzalo eventually sued the Westminster School District in what would become a landmark case known as the “‘Brown v. Board of Education for Mexicans’” and ended segregation in California in 1947. [Small irony: Brown v. Board didn’t get decided until seven years later in 1954 which means Brown v. Board should really be known as the “Mendez v. Westminster School District for everyone else”!!]
While Sylvia and her family fought for equal rights on the outside, Aki, her brother, and their mother spent World War II imprisoned in the Sonoran Desert. They lived for two years without Aki’s father, who was arrested without cause and separately incarcerated. When the family was finally reunited and released after war’s end, they were some of the lucky few who were able to return to their pre-War homes intact, thanks to the Mendez family who took good care of their farm.
Sylvia and Aki became friends exchanging letters (they met briefly at Poston when Sylvia’s father hand-delivered the lease payment, rightfully not trusting the postal service into the prison camp); Conkling adds in her edifying “Afterword” (filled with Mendez and Munemitsu family updates, historical overview, and an extensive appendix for further reading) that Sylvia and Aki “remain friends to this day.”
Presented in chapters that alternate between the two girls’ voices, Conkling deftly uses small details to emphasize the parallel trajectory of their wartime lives – from the special ethnic-specific dolls both girls cherish, to the wire fences that surround both the run-down “Mexican” school and the Poston prison, to their civil rights that were unjustly compromised, to the resilience that pulls both girls and their families through difficult, challenging times. While Sylvia and Aki’s stories might separately seem familiar (civil rights and internment titles are easily found in most libraries), Conkling overlaps and intertwines their narratives to create a uniquely resonating testimony of committed triumph.
Readers: Middle Grade