The Phoenix Award is a children’s book award created by the ChLA, or Children’s Literature Association. The Phoenix Award shares its name with the fictional and mystical creature the flying Phoenix, who dies in flames and ashes only to resurrect itself into renewed beauty and life. Designed by Caldecott-winning illustrator Trina Schart Hyman, the image of the Phoenix was meant to parallel the idea of old, neglected, and often obscure books, rising from these ashes and once again being used to “touch imaginations and enrich lives.” Created in 1985, the Phoenix Award began adding honor books for most years after 1989 (Phoenix Award). One of these honor books included Under the Blood-Red Sun in 2014. Under the Blood-Red Sun, a story of a boy whose life is shaken by war during the attack on Pear Harbor, clearly shows itself worthy of being a Phoenix Award honor book. It’s story is one of excellence, inspiring readers as it adds urgency to immediate political issues such as racism, and reminds them of the importance of both our countries history, and the value of culture.
Anne Jordan, a professor at Western Michigan University, had a dream: a dream of “creating an organization dedicated to the serious study of children’s literature.” Upon the realization and frustration that there was no place for scholars to go and intelligently discuss children’s literature, or find information about it, Anne gathered colleagues and scholars to share her dream. This dream became a reality when the Children’s Literature Association was formed in 1973 (Carol 4). Today, the ChLA is made up of scholars, editors, authors, teachers, librarians, illustrators, and many others who value the importance of children’s literature. From this Association, came both the Phoenix Award Committee, and the Phoenix Award. An award created with the intention of “recognizing a book of high literary quality that did not receive a major award…at the time of its publication, but has withstood the test of time.” Often the books chosen for this award are historical fiction, dealing with tough social and political issues from the past that still apply to current day (Piehl 21). Under the Blood-Red Sun, is an excellent example of a novel that functions exactly in this way.
Under the Blood-Red Sun is a beautifully written book about a young Japanese, American boy named Tomi growing up during the very beginning of World War II. The book was originally published in 1994 by Delacorte Press. Written by Graham Salisbury, it is a piece written as both historical fiction, and multiculturalistic children’s literature. Tomi’s story begins in Hawaii where he lives with his younger sister Kimi, his cranky Grandpa, and his Mama and Papa. Tomi spends most of his time going to school, and catching curve balls from his hard-pitching best friend, Billy. Billy is a haoles, or white boy. Even though Tomi and his family are American citizens, they come from deep Japanese roots. Neither Billy or Tomi care about their difference in race, they just want to play ball. Unfortunately there are people on the island who do not feel the same way about Japanese American Citizens, including Tomi’s neighbor and ex-friend Keet. Even in the face of adversity, Tomi, Billy (the only haoles), and the rest of their friends form a baseball team called the Rats. They spend their days like normal boys, going to school and playing ball, until the story is eerily interrupted when the boys experience first-hand, the horror of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Not only does this shatter the world of the islanders, but it creates great racial discomfort and mistrust. All Japanese were immediately seen as a threat, often accused of being part of helping Japan bomb Pearl Harbor, including Tomi’s family. Tomi and his family are forced to remove all Japanese-related memoir from their home and bury it, for fear of being caught with it and accused of helping the Japanese. Even Tomi’s father and grandpa are unjustly arrested and placed in prisoner-of-war camps because they are Japanese. During an unsettling time of turmoil for the United States, the boys are forced to find a “new normal” to life as the world awaits the U.S. plan of action. Even as they are pushed into growing up, helping provide for their families and working as volunteers, the Rats never stop playing ball. Baseball is their escape from the chaos of the world. Through it’s historical context, Salisbury’s book teaches children not only the importance of culture and race, but also how important it is to value those different from your own.
Salisbury’s novel communicates several key themes to children: family and heritage, the importance of respect, and racial equality. Family and heritage is likely the main theme of Salisbury’s story. Though Tomi is an American citizen, his family deeply values their Japanese culture, especially Tomi’s grandpa. Grandpa is constantly reminding Tomi about their country, insisting on hanging the Japanese flag in the yard, and keeping an alter in the living room for his deceased wife (Tomi’s Grandma). Tomi is even taught to take care of the family katana, or sword, a symbol of honor passed down through the family. This theme of family honor has been taught to Tomi his whole life; he has been taught not to fight, but to remain honorable. His Papa tells him: “Tomikazu, we are Americans, it is true…but inside we are also Japanese. I don’t care how angry you get, you cannot fight. You must learn…patience.You cannot…bring shame on this family” (Salisbury 14). These familial values should be so encouraging to children. Children should learn to take pride in where they came from. Heritage and culture are important, wether or not one has a healthy immediate family. Tomi’s family also models healthy family interaction; they are close, honor one another, and work hard to take care of each other. Even if children are deprived of this type of family experience at home, they should be given a sort of model to know what is possible, to know they are not required to repeat their family’s history. From this idea of maintaining family honor comes a theme of respect. Many times throughout the story Tomi is made fun of or bullied by his neighbor Keet, but each time, Tommy just stands up and takes it, never seeking revenge. This is not out of an unwillingness to stand up for himself, but more out of respect for both his family and himself. Tomi knows that if he fights back he will look just as mean and ignorant as Keet, and even worse, Keet will get the reaction he wants. This displays an important idea for children to understand: the importance of respect, and by extension a level of forgiveness, even when it goes undeserved. Lastly, the book discuses race from a historical perspective of high racial tension between Japanese and Americans. Japanese people, including Tomi are derogatorily referred to as “japs” by many of the white Americans in the book. At this time, the war drove many white Americans to great fear, resulting in judgment of the Japanese, unfairly associating the whole with the group (the enemy), rather than separating the two. Comparatively, this hate before and after the bombing gave the Japanese many reasons to dislike white Americans, often unfairly judging all whites as white-supremacists. However both generalized assumptions were wrong, causing unnecessary pain and discrimination based on race. Not all white Americans disliked Japanese Americans, and many Japanese felt shamed by their own people when Japan bombed the island. Even Tomi’s grandpa exclaims: “we have been disgraced” in horror at his own people’s actions (Salisbury 133). Though this was a time of war, the same principles apply now. Racial tension is unfortunately still a very real and relevant issue in the world today, and child readers need to be aware of the genuine pain it can and does cause. Collectively each of these three themes work together to send an overlying message of unity: take care of one another, respect one another, and work together despite situation, skin color, or past.
Chosen as a Phoenix Award Honor book for it’s endearing story set in a crucial time during American history, Under the Blood-Red Sun proves itself to be a book worth remembering. Tomi’s story encourages its child readers to build friendship bridges beyond the issues of the world. It asks children to look within themselves, find out what matters most to them, and stand up for it. Salisbury’s book empowers children to work together, stand up for others, to appreciate culture, and find value within family. The Phoenix Award and Salisbury’s book contribute to the world of literature by allowing readers to both compare, and apply the past to modern day, giving readers the opportunity to be inspired by writing resurrected from a different time.
“Phoenix Award.” Children’s Literature Association. Children’s Literature Association N.p., n.d.Web. 18 Oct. 2015.
Gay, Carol. “ChLA:1973-1983.” Children’s Literature Association. Children’s Literature Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.
Piehl, Kathy. “Phoenix Award Winners: Books Worth Remembering.” Book Links. 7.4 (1998): 21-25. Children’s Literature Association. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.
Salisbury, Graham. Under the Blood-Red Sun. New York: Delacorte Press, 1994. Print.