By Kathleen Burkinshaw
The journey that led me to write The Last Cherry Blossom, a book for middle-grade readers about the atomic bombing of Japan, began about eight years ago with one question. My daughter was in 7th grade at the time, and something that happened in her history class had upset her. They would be covering the end of World War II that week; after class, she overheard some kids talking about how they couldn’t wait to see the “cool mushroom cloud picture.” She asked if I would speak to her class about the people under the mushroom cloud that day—people like her Grandma.
I called my mother and asked if it was okay to tell others about her experience in Hiroshima. My mom was a very private person and never spoke about August 6th in public. When I was a young child, she told me she came from Tokyo. Only after I questioned her about the nightmares she had at the beginning of every August did she confide that she had actually been born in Hiroshima. She told me how she lost her home, family, and friends on August 6th, and she asked me not to tell anyone—especially at school. It was too painful for her to discuss and she didn’t want to draw attention to herself.
But on that day eight years ago, my mother gave me her blessing to talk with my daughter’s class about what she had experienced on August 6, 1945. She felt that since the students were about the same age she had been at the time of the bombing (12 years old), maybe they would relate to her story. And she hoped that when they voted in the future, they would remember why nuclear weapons should never be used again.
I spoke to my daughter’s class a week after that phone call. And although my daughter left that school long ago—she’s about to start her junior year in college—I continue to visit that seventh-grade class every year. I have also presented to other local middle and high schools here in North Carolina, as well as educational conferences. Each year the students hear my non-political presentation and express their gratitude to my mother for her willingness to let me share such a personal, traumatizing memory.
I had also been writing about my mom’s survival of the atomic bomb, though solely for my daughter’s and my benefit. But soon teachers inquired if I had a book that could complement their curriculum, so I started writing one.
I decided that The Last Cherry Blossom would start before the bomb was dropped. In this way, I could include information on the culture, mindset, and daily life in Japan during WWII—something that had not been done in other books for young readers that dealt with the atomic bombing. I wanted the reader to not only like the main character, but to sympathize with what she went through. For me, the best way to do this was to show that even though she was living in the 1940s, she had things in common with students today: she wasn’t a fan of homework, nor school uniforms, and she had a best friend she confided in.
When I completed a draft of The Last Cherry Blossom, I would read the chapter that took place on the day of the bombing to the middle and high school students I visited. I wrote it in first person so the student/reader could picture the events as they unfold. There are a couple of paragraphs that are always very emotional for me when I read them to audiences. I can still hear my mother explaining those events and see the tears in her eyes several decades later, as if it were happening all over again. Students have told me that “We could read about this all day in history books, but to have the story told from your mother’s perspective makes it real and more heartbreaking.”
Even though my novel is historical fiction, a lot of research hours went in to my writing process. I feel that historical fiction is an effective genre to reach middle and high school students, because the stories not only convey important facts about the event being discussed, but can also evoke compassion and sympathy in younger readers. They will remember an event when viewing it through someone else’s eyes. In this way, the students understand and retain so much more than they can get from a couple of paragraphs and a mushroom cloud picture in a textbook. They learn that underneath those now famous mushroom clouds were mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and friends.
My book was published a year ago, on August 2, 2016—a few days before the 71st anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sadly, my mom passed away in January 2015. However, she did know the book would be published and had read a recent draft of The Last Cherry Blossom.
I continue to visit schools locally as well as Skype with students in other states and countries who have read The Last Cherry Blossom in their classes. When I hear that the main character is an inspiration to them because of all she went through, it touches my heart because I know they are talking about my mom. She was the bravest woman I’ll ever know. She lost everything that mattered to her in one day, but had the will to push forward and found the strength to love again.
So, to honor her, my hope is not only to convey the message that nuclear weapons should never be used again, but to also teach young readers that the children in wartime Japan had the same love for family, fear of what could happen to them, and wishes for peace as the Allied children had. I want students to walk away knowing that the ones we may think are our “enemy” are not always so different from ourselves—a message that needs to be heard now more than ever.