Eleanor Coerr, author of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, died this week at the age of 88. Based on the true story of Sadako Sasaki, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes is about a terminally-ill girl dying of leukemia brought about by exposure to radiation from the atom bomb dropped at Hiroshima. This popular book is used in classrooms all over the world, inspiring children to send letters and paper cranes --- an estimated 9 metric tons annually --- to the Hiroshima Peace Park, which houses a memorial and museum to Sadako and all the victims of the bomb dropped at Hiroshima.
Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, Coerr's lifelong fascination with Japan began when she received a book called Little Pictures of Japan one Christmas. Her best friend in high school was also Japanese, introducing her to brush painting, eating with chopsticks, and origami. Coerr's first trip to Japan happened in 1949 as a reporter for the Ottawa Journal, since no other staff members wanted to travel to a war-damaged country. She learned Japanese by living on a farm near Yonago for a year.
Coerr was horrified by the aftermath of the atom bomb she saw at Hiroshima. Though the heroine Coerr would later immortalize in her novel --- Sadako Sasaki --- was still living at the time Coerr first went to Hiroshima, Coerr did not learn about Sadako and her story until a visit to Japan in 1963. Encountering the statue of Sadako at the Hiroshima Peace Park, Coerr was inspired by her courage and bravery. She began searching for a copy of Sadako's autobiography, Kokeshi, which had been copied and distributed by Sadako's classmates.
One afternoon, while having tea with a missionary friend who had lived in Hiroshima during the war, Coerr mentioned her interest in Sadako and Hiroshima.
"Eleanor," her friend said, "you should write a biography of Sadako Sasaki for American children to read."
"I would love to," Coerr said, "but I must have Kokeshi to get all the true facts about Sadako."
Coerr's friend took her to the attic where they found a copy of Kokeshi at the bottom of an old trunk.
"It's like magic. I was meant to write her story," Coerr said.
Mieko and the Fifth Treasure, about a gifted calligrapher and artist whose hands are injured from the second bomb dropped at Nagasaki. Mieko worries she may never be able to overcome her physical injuries to make art again. But harder is Mieko's sense that she has lost the fifth treasure, "beauty in the heart," which has always been the source of her art. Both books deal with difficult topics --- not just the bombs dropped by the United States on civilian populations in Japan, but also the emotional challenges of overcoming tragedy.
In reading about Eleanor Coerr's books and Sadako's life, I encountered the website for the Hiroshima Peace Park, which contains extensive material both about the events at Hiroshima and the life of Sadako. It also features letters to Sadako, many of which are written as though Sadako is still alive. The real Sadako Sasaki died in 1953, but her memory --- and her legend --- are living, growing entities. It struck me that Coerr's books are often the introduction to this material inspiring children from all over the world to send letters, pictures, and cranes to Japan: their contributions to peace.
When did you first encounter Sadako and her story? Do you use Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes in your classroom? What other titles would you recommend in dealing with this difficult topic?
More about Eleanor Coerr and her Life
School Library Journal's Obituary
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
Sarah A. Wood, a reviewer for teenreads.com and kidsreads.com since 2003, is a lifetime reader and writer. She refuses to accept that there are people who don't like to read and stubbornly believes this is only because they have not met the right book yet.
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