Naomi’s Tree – by Joy Kogawa and illustrated by Ruth Ohi

Cherry Tree

Kogawa, J., & Ohi, R. (Illustrator). 2008. Naomi’s Tree. Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

To Use or Not to Use:
A great read-aloud book and/or addition to your classroom library
This book is beautifully written and illustrated. It also touches on a time in Canadian history we often like to ignore – Japanese Canadian internment – and is written by one who experienced internment first-hand. 

War, racism, loss, grief, displacement, injustice, relationships with place and nature

Historical fiction

Picture book

Grade Range: 
Grade 4 +
The subject matter is heavy and complex; the pages are quite text-heavy for a picture book. 

Curricular Connections:
Big Ideas:
-Grade 5 (SOCIAL STUDIES) “Canada’s policies and treatment of minority peoples have negative and positive legacies.” AND “Immigration and multiculturalism continue to shape Canadian society and identity.”
-Grade 4-9 (ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS) “Exploring text and story helps us understand ourselves and make connections to others and to the world.”

Old Curriculum:
-Grade 5 (SOCIAL STUDIES) “Assess why immigrants came to Canada, the individual challenges they faced, and their contributions to Canada.” (emphasis added)
-Grade 6 (SOCIAL STUDIES) “Compare Canadian society with the society of another country” and “describe examples of different approaches to cultural diversity in Canada and in other cultures and societies studied, such as segregation, assimilation, integration, and pluralism”.

            Naomi’s Tree begins in Japan, where people gather under a cherry tree called “the Friendship Tree”. Seeds from the tree are taken all over the world; one is planted in the backyard of a beautiful house. Two generations later, a young girl named Naomi falls in love with the tree her grandmother planted. Naomi lives a happy life, but suddenly her world is shattered. Her mother goes to Japan to take care of Naomi’s great-grandmother and while she is there Canada enters into war with Japan. The family is separated as “[g]reat sadness fill[s] the world” (9). Naomi’s family and others “whose parents or grandparents had come from [Japan]” are seen as the enemy and forced “from their homes, their schools, their gardens, their trees, and their friends” (9). Naomi’s life is changed forever. Her mother dies in Japan. Strangers move into her old house and her family cannot go home.
Years later, when Naomi and her brother are old, they visit Vancouver and find their childhood home. When they go into the backyard and see the tree “scarred and bleeding with sap” (20), they are met with a wave of memories and emotions. Naomi embraces the tree and cries “[a]ll the tears she had not shed” (20). She is reminded of her mother’s parting words and suddenly hears her mother’s voice assuring her she is safe and at home.
The book’s Afterward provides a little background information about the author’s experience during and after the war as a Japanese Canadian. It also explains how she returned to her old house and was eventually able to purchase it.

Teaching Tips:
When talking about Japanese Canadian internment, be sure not to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors by painting an entire group as ‘bad’ and another as ‘good’. While it is tempting to tell students that Japanese Canadian people were ‘good’ but Japanese people in Japan were ‘bad’, things were not that black-and-white.

If you are looking for information on Japanese Canadian culture, history, or internment, Nikkei Place in Burnaby, B.C. is a great place to look. They host affordable field trips, and lend out educational kits to teachers (for a $40 fee). They also offer online exhibits and a digitized oral history collection (although the latter is a bit hard to navigate and difficult to hear at times).
The Discover Nikkei website also has some great lesson plans. also has some useful lesson plan ideas that deal with Japanese Canadian internment; this one talks about the Japanese Canadian experience, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and ideas of fairness, critical thinking, and apologizing.

If you live in or near Vancouver, consider taking your class to visit Kogawa House, the childhood home of author Joy Kogawa (who was interned in the Second World War). See if Kogawa herself may be available to talk to your class. Teachers should note that this historic site serves multiple purposes, also serving as a writer’s residency. Those who are considering taking their classes to Kogawa House would do well to google a little more about the house and some of its stories first.

The Murakami House is a free historical site that would make a great field trip.It was home to a Japanese Canadian family before they were interned in the Second World War. The Murakami Boathouse is close to the Steveston Canning Museum in Richmond and The Bunkhouses (First Peoples’ and Chinese) are just down the boardwalk. You can also visit the shipyard and four fisherman’s stilthouses.

This book could be used to talk about our relationships with place and nature. Students may be asked to write stories about or discuss places/trees/houses that mean something to them (remind them of happy memories, make them feel safe, etc).

Other Notes:
            Naomi’s Road, also by Joy Kogawa, tells Naomi’s story in a chapter book that could very well be read by students in grade four and up.

You can purchase Naomi’s Tree here.


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