Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes

by Eleanor Coerr; ill. Ronald Himler

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977

80 pages

About four months ago, when I posted for Banned Books Week, I mentioned that inspiring books often push our boundaries or make us question long-held assumptions. In many cases, they challenge our ideas about what the world is or should be.

That kind of challenge, I think, is what turns inspiration to action–and it’s what’s at the core of Eleanor Coerr’s Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.

Sadako is a short but extremely powerful biography of the title subject, a 12-year-old Japanese girl who died of leukemia in 1955. Sadako lived in Hiroshima and had ambitions of being a runner. Her illness–from first symptoms to her death–lasted only about eight months, and she spent almost all that time in hospital.

Early in Sadako’s hospital stay, her best friend visited her and reminded her of a Japanese legend: if a sick person folded one thousand origami cranes, the gods would make her well. Sadako only half-believed the legend, but still she began folding cranes, and soon her family and friends were folding them too.

By the time she died, Sadako and her friends and family had folded 644 cranes; after her death, her classmates completed the project. They also began to tell Sadako’s story, and the girl who just wanted to run became the inspiration for a peace movement that is still alive today, helped along by the widespread publication of Coerr’s book.

To be honest, there’s not much in the book by way of plot. We meet Sadako and her family, see her run a couple of races and celebrate Peace Day with her family, and then she gets sick. The rest of the book is a collection of episodes in Sadako’s fading life: a conversation with another sick child in the hospital courtyard, a short visit home for a holiday, the gift of a kimono from her family.

Hanging over all this is the specter of the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Peace Day is Japan’s national remembrance of the bombings and those who died from them. Sadako’s leukemia was caused by radiation exposure, and several of her family members died in the Hiroshima blast. Coerr doesn’t mince words about this, or about the effects of the atom bombs on the Japanese people, both as a cultural group and as private citizens going about their daily lives.

Her depiction of the aftereffects of the bombings is certainly age-appropriate, but she is very clear about the deep sadness of the Japanese people, their fear as they waited for long-term effects of the bombings to manifest, and the scope of the casualty list.

The result is a book that has the potential to push a lot of buttons. It raises questions about the nature of war, the moral issues surrounding the creation and use of nuclear weapons, the ways we depict and process our nation’s past, and how people face mortality. It’s the kind of book you don’t (or shouldn’t) give to a child unless you’re prepared to answer a whole host of questions.

But that’s precisely why I’m including it here. Because when a child reads a book like this, and starts asking questions–about Japanese culture, about why were at war with Japan, about why we developed and used the atom bomb, about why innocent children suffer and die because of grown-ups’ decisions–the answers we give (or even the answers they come up with on their own) plant seeds.

Over time, and if properly nurtured, those seeds can grow into dreams of changing the world. And, in some cases, the world-changing will actually happen.  Sadako’s story, for instance, has now inspired several generations of families to advocate for a nonviolent world.

Who knows what this kind of inspiration might lead your child, or your students, to do?

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