BOOKS: 'Sylvia and Aki' tells true story of two girls united across history“Sylvia and Aki,” by Winifred Conkling, is the story of a unique friendship that takes place against the backdrop of World War II and school segregation.
By: Jean Patrick, Republic Book Columnist
“Sylvia and Aki,” by Winifred Conkling, is the story of a unique friendship that takes place against the backdrop of World War II and school segregation.
The book contains two intertwining stories.
Sylvia Mendez is a Mexican-American whose family leases an asparagus farm from a Japanese-American farmer in southern California.
When Sylvia tries to start third grade at nearby Westminster school, she is not able to attend because of the color of her skin. Later, her father schools the school district, striving for equality in opportunity. At home, Sylvia discovers a Japanese doll and a school photograph of the girl who used to live in the house. She realizes that she and the girl are the same age.
“Sylvia and Aki” also tells the story of Aki Munemitsu, the daughter of the Japanese-American farmer. Aki expects to finish third grade at Westminster School. But after the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, her family is sent to an internment camp in the desert of Poston, Ariz.
Aki leaves her precious doll and her photograph high in the closet of her bedroom. She hopes that her “hidden treasures” will be waiting for her when she returns.
When Sylvia’s dad drives all the way to Arizona to pay the Munemitsu family their rent, the friendship between Sylvia and Aki begins.
This poignant story is based on true events. Sylvia’s father (Gonzalo Mendez) sued the School District of Orange County, Calif., in 1945. As author Winifred Conkling writes in an endnote, his victory in 1946 inspired the governor of California to make school segregation illegal. Also, the Mendez case influenced the famous Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka lawsuit of 1954.
Although the book ends with a strong emphasis on education and equality, the heart of the story is present in the doll that the two girls share.
Sylvia and Aki are real people.
Currently, they live in southern California where they continue to be friends.
“Sylvia and Aki,” by Winifred Conkling. Tricycle Press, 2012. 160 pp.