Monday, October 12, 2009

Review of Hannah's Winter by Kierin Meehan

Meehan, Kierin. Hannah's Winter. Kane/Miller, 2009.

12-year-old Hannah lived in Japan for two years when she was in preschool and she's been studying Japanese in school ever since, so it makes sense that her mom decides to bring her along for a 3-month stint in Japan. Her mom is determined not only that Hannah soak up some Japanese culture, but also that she learn 1000 kanji while she's there. The catch - not only will Hannah be missing school back in Australia, but she'll also have to live with a Japanese family and going to school while she's in Japan, instead of gallivanting around with her mother exploring Japanese gardens.

The Japanese family, friends of Hannah's mom, turns out to be eccentric but wonderfully nice, and there is a daughter Hannah's age named Miki - and there is also the ghost of a young boy and a mysterious puzzle that Hannah and Miki must solve in order to free him. Mild danger lurks in the form of a malevolent female spirit, but the girls and their neighbor Hiro receive plenty of help and guidance from benevolent spirits and humans alike. The mystery of the little ghost boy - and his amazing link to Hannah - is revealed at the end in a diary entry written in 1840.

We aren't hammered over the head with all the strangeness and oddities of Japanese culture - instead, we catch glimpses of both daily life and culture through Hannah's eyes. Her host family is almost worth a book all to themselves - Otosan ("dad"), who owns a stationery store filled with gorgeous Japanese paper goods, sees ghosts and occasionally sneakily eats raw bear meat despite his family's condemnation; Okaasan ("mom") is busy morning to night with ecological causes; and Granny appoints herself as the Shoe Police (after Hannah keeps forgetting to take hers off when she comes home) and Custodian of Japanese Culture. It's not that characters are particularly well-developed - but they are quirky in the way that all people are when you get to know them and their everyday routines.

Japanese words and bits of history sprinkled throughout the story, combined with atmospheric ancient gardens and temples, create a distinctly Japanese setting - while Hannah's voice, fresh and with a willingness to see the humor in almost any situation, has what I think of as a very Australian tone. There isn't much suspense - the scariest parts come not from the malevolent spirit but from the ghostly boy's harmless pranks - and the plot moves forward in a steady but leisurely way. What I found most compelling was not the fantastical elements but the wonderful setting, with its mixture of modern and traditional Japan. Fans of J-culture may wish for more details on fashion and food - and there is not a mention of manga to be found - but it has plenty of fascinating elements nevertheless.

Although it is (mistakenly, I feel) in the Young Adult collection of our library system (if I had seen it first, it would have gone in the children's collection! But there you go - no system is perfect), this would be an entertaining read for kids ages 10 - 13.

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