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Children's Literature Reviews
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The friends
Kazumi Yumoto ; translated by Cathy Hirano.
Publisher description
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.
169 p. ; 22 cm.


"Originally published in Japan under the title: Natsu no niwa by Fukutake Publishing Co., Ltd., 1992"--T.p. verso.
Curious about death, three sixth-grade boys decide to spy on an old man waiting for him to die, but they end up becoming his friends.

Best Books:

50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Read, 2006 ; Cooperative Children's Book Center; United States
Best Children's Books of the Year, 1998 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
Books for You: An Annotated Booklist for Senior High, Thirteenth Edition, 1997 ; National Council of Teachers of English; United States
Books to Read Aloud to Children of All Ages, 2003 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
Children's Books, 1996 ; New York Public Library; United States
Children's Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, 2001 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Kirkus Book Review Stars, 1996 ; United States
Middle And Junior High School Library Catalog, Eighth Edition, 2000 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Notable Children's Books, 1997 ; ALSC American Library Association; United States
Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of the Social Studies, 1996 ; National Council for the Social Studies NCSS; United States
Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, October 1996 ; Cahners; United States
Sharing Cultures: Asian American Children's Authors, 2001 ; ALSC American Library Association; United States

Awards, Honors, Prizes:

Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Children's Literature, 1997 Winner Fiction and Poetry United States
Mildred L. Batchelder Award, 1997 Winner United States

Reading Measurement Programs:

Accelerated Reader
Interest Level Middle Grade
Book Level 4.1
Accelerated Reader Points 6
Accelerated Vocabulary

Lexile, MetaMetrics, Inc.
Lexile Measure 710

Reading Counts-Scholastic
Interest Level 6-8
Reading Level 4
Title Point Value 11
Lexile Measure 710


Hazel Rochman (Booklist, October 15, 1996 (Vol. 93, No. 4))
Outsiders at home and at school, Kiyama and his two awkward sixth-grade friends decide to spy on a solitary old man in their small Japanese town. They want to see what happens when he dies. For them, death is the stuff of nightmare and ghosts, a fearful unknown. At first, the old man is angry, but their attention revitalizes him, and he draws them into his home. Together they fix his house, clean up his yard, plant a garden, and every day after cram school, gather there. When he does die, there's no horror--only heartfelt grief and loving memories that give them strength to go on. The novel is long, sometimes slow-moving, and Kiyama's first-person narrative is too articulate about his fears and their resolution. But the translation from the Japanese is immediate, both lyrical and casual. The characters, including the old man, are subtly drawn. Readers will be moved by the terror of death, the bond across generations, and the struggle of those whom society labels losers. Category: Middle Readers. 1996, Farrar, $15. Gr. 5-7.

CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center Choices, 1996)
In search of answers to questions about death, three Japanese boys learn about life and living in a beautifully unfolding novel from Japanese author Kazumi Yumoto. Kiyama, Kawabe and Yamashita are sixth grade friends who want to know what happens when someone dies, in that very moment of life's passing. They begin spying on a reclusive old man near their school: the most likely candidate for death that they know. But the old man, whose life is spare and lonely, who is, indeed, physically alive but barely engaged in the act of living, catches them. As if to defy the very thing the boys hope for, the old man begins to embrace life in a new and vigorous way, challenging the boys to come out from behind the wall where they spy and close the distance between them as he does so. What began as a death watch slowly transforms into a deeply felt friendship between the boys and the old man, a friendship that encourages them all--children and adult alike--to live life more deliberately. A novel set in contemporary Japan and providing a realistic portrayal of the busy, active schedules which many Japanese children maintain to meet the expectations of family and society acknowledges the ways lives are enriched when people risk coming out from behind their walls to meet the hearts and minds of others. Co-Winner, 1996 CCBC Batchelder DiscussIon CCBC categories: Fiction for Children; Contemporary People, Places and Events. 1996, Farrar Straus Giroux, 170 pages, $16.00. Ages 10-13.

Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, 1996)
In this graceful first novel, the funeral of one boy's grandmother excites a curiosity about death in three Japanese schoolboys: fatherless Kawabe, jiggling with nervous energy; pudgy, soft-hearted Yamashita; and the narrator, Kiyama. The boys are hardpressed by unhappy parents (Kiyama's mother drinks; Kawabe's is unmarried), exams, and cram school ("this summer will determine academic victory or defeat"). Like "secret agents," they begin spying on an unkempt old man, thinking he will "probably drop dead soon." Instead, he shapes up under their scrutiny, and they are drawn into his life, even getting him to tell of his participation in a wartime massacre. In the course of the summer, Yamashita almost drowns; Kiyama gets into the "first big fight" of his life; and the old man quietly passes away, leaving them "a friend in the next world." This is an offbeat and unsentimental coming-of-age story--a Japanese Stand By Me--about friends fascinated by death, who end up learning about life. 1996, Farrar Straus & Giroux, $15.00. Starred Review. © 1996 Kirkus Reviews/VNU eMedia, Inc. All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weekly)
In an eloquent initiation story that first touches and then pierces the heart, Japanese first-novelist Yumoto introduces three irresistible 12-year-old boys, whose fascination with death leads to an unexpected friendship. Chubby Yamashita, "four-eyed" Kawabe, and bean-pole Kiyama, the narrator, hear that the old man who lives by the calligraphy schools "will probably drop dead soon"; hoping to witness the event, the boys organize a daily lookout. Their spy mission backfires, however, when the old man, who seems to have plenty of energy, discovers their presence and solicits their help in doing chores. Hanging out the old man's laundry, weeding his yard and planting flowers may not have been part of the trio's plan, but these experiences fill a need in each boy's life. During the course of their relationship with the old man, Yamashita, Kawabe and Kiyama learn how to confront their fears and accept the inevitable. The passage of the time and the nature of mutability are poetically expressed in this warmly humorous narrative, deserving of equally high marks in kid appeal and literary merit. Ages 10-up. (Oct.)

Connie Russell (The ALAN Review, Spring 1997 (Vol. 24, No. 3))
Set in Japan, this translated story by a Japanese author begins with three friends -- Kiyama, Kawabe, and Yamashita -- who become curious about dying, following the death of Yamashita's grandmother. Determined to learn more, they choose an old man from their neighborhood to watch. Believing they will see death first-hand if they continually watch him, they set out to do just that and neglect their studies. Yumoto skillfully shows the transition of the boys and the crotchety and lonely old man as they become friends. The friends learn valuable lessons about both living and dying as the story and friendship with the old man comes to an end. This excellent novel gives middle school readers a first-hand look at Japanese education and culture as well as a heartwarming story about friendship and compassion. 1996, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 170 pp., $15.00. Ages 12 up.

Janice M. Del Negro (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February 1997 (Vol. 50, No. 6))
Three sixth-grade Japanese boys-Yamashita, Kawabe, and Kiyama-are inseparable. When Yamashita's grandmother dies, the three boys become fascinated with the idea of death and determined to see a dead body. They begin to spy on an old man due to "drop dead at any minute." But the old man has life in him yet, and he draws them into a warm, supportive relationship that each boy desperately needs: Yamashita, because his mother is pressuring him to be more than the fish-shop owner his father is; Kawabe, who thinks of his absent (divorced) father as if he were dead; and Kiyama, whose parents are having difficulty due to/resulting in his mother's heavy drinking. Yumoto places the boys squarely within their society, showing the expectations and pressures of the adult world while concentrating on the dynamics among the boys and between the boys and the old man. Narrated by the sensitive Kiyama, the novel never loses the unsullied, unforgiving, humorous clarity of the twelve-year-old view that the world is easily understood once you know the rules. Gently paced, the action is calmly involving, as the old man tells the boys of his wartime experiences, teaches them the proper way to hang clothes and peel pears, and demonstrates the merits of acceptance and survival. The boys' deathwatch becomes a nurturing experience, and when the old man dies, the reader must smile with Yamashita as he says, "After all, we have a friend in the next world watching out for us! Doesn't that make you feel invincible?" R--Recommended. (c) Copyright 1997, The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. 1996, Farrar, 170p, $15.00. Grades 5-8.

Martha Davis Beck (The Five Owls, March/April 1997 (Vol. 11, No. 4))
The Friends is a novel that wakes up the senses, leaving the reader changed in small ways after reading it, and eager to pass it on. The experience is doubly satisfying, as we are invited not only to enjoy an original and moving story, but to experience a slice of life across the ocean. (The book was originally published in Japan in 1992, where it won the Recommended Book Prize from the Japan School Library Club.) Yumoto's direct, personal style and the novel's graceful translation allow American readers to feel at home on foreign soil. The story involves the experience of three sixth-grade boys who, on the verge of facing the school exams that will determine their futures, are sidetracked by events in their lives to confront the larger issue of death. When their friend Yamashita returns from attending his grandmother's funeral, Kiyama and Kawabe's discomfort with the whole idea of death is gradually surpassed by curiosity: what does it mean, to die? What does death look like when it happens? The three of them, initially plagued by nightmares on the subject, get their courage up and set out to catch someone "in the act." Their attention focuses on an old man in their village who lives alone, and who appears to be at death's door. What might seem to be a morbid subject reveals itself to be rich ground for humor and surprising discoveries. As the three boys spy on the old man, peeking at him through his fence after school, he becomes aware of their attention--and it revives him. Who else has taken any interest? Before long, they're helping him paint the fence, take out the garbage, do minor repairs, and plant cosmos in his yard. To the surprise of the boys, a close relationship develops, and in the process they learn some subtle but important life lessons. Kiyama, the narrator, is a sensitive recorder of the events that unfold. Yumoto's treatment of his experience is both poetic and perceptive. The story's universal themes--peer pressures, family dysfunction, worry about the future, fear of death--intertwine with culturally specific details, such as Japan's more intense academic program (the boys attend "cram school" in the evenings), and differences in the way death is observed. (In Japan when a person dies and is cremated, loved ones carefully pick their bones from the ashes with chopsticks, depositing them into the urn in which they will remain.) Despite differences in routine and ritual, it will be clear to readers on this side of the ocean that young people in Japan share many things with them--curiosity about the world, uneasiness about death (elaborated comically in a scene at soccer camp, where the trio's fear of ghosts is put to the test) and the basic mix of emotions, hopes, and anxieties that come with growing up. For both the recognition and discoveries it will provoke, The Friends deserves an enthusiastic American reception. 1996, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 170 pages, $15.00. Ages 10 to 14.

Susan R. Farber (VOYA, April 1997 (Vol. 20, No. 1))
This charming and gentle story of three boys who are friends in Japan reveals their gradual realization that death can be a celebration of a loved one's life. Kiyama, Kawabe, and Yamashita are awkward loners in the sixth grade when Yamashita's grandmother dies, leading the three boys to excitedly recite fearful stories of ghosts, gore, and nightmares. They decide to dispel their fears by seeing firsthand what really happens when someone dies by spying on an elderly, decrepit neighbor who, they assume, is certain to die soon. Day after day, they keep him under rather obvious surveillance until to their surprise, the formerly cantankerous old man befriends the boys and starts to take an interest in their lives and in himself. He becomes revitalized and together they clean up his house and garden, share meals, and most importantly, share their innermost feelings. Months later, when the boys find the old man dead in his bed, they realize just how much they have gained from their relationship. More humorous and aimed at a younger audience than Zindel's ground-breaking The Pigman (Bantam, 1968), this novel has the added attraction of a foreign setting which will intrigue readers unfamiliar with daily life in Japan. Kiyama is a likeable little boy who is just on the cusp of adolescence, and his adventures at school will be instantly familiar to students between grades five and seven. The translation is well done and smooth, and even concepts such as "cram school" will be understood in the context of the story. Librarians will feel comfortable recommending this novel to boys and girls alike. VOYA CODES: 4Q 3P M J (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 1996, Farrar Straus Giroux, 170p., $15.00. Ages 11 to 15.


Old age--Fiction.
LanguageCall NumberLCCNDewey DecimalISBN/ISSN
English (eng) PZ7.Y8967 Fr 1996
96011134 [Fic]
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