Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In Conversation with Naomi Hirahara

by Hilde Garcia

1001 Cranes is the story of twelve year old Angela Kato, who arrives in LA begrudgingly, as a result of her parent’s choice.  She is quickly put to work making origami displays for newlyweds.  Without realizing it, it helps her cope with her parent’s forthcoming divorce, relocating to a new city and connecting with people who look just like her.  She learns that she can survive anything and that she is a hero.

Ms. Hirahara and I met at the Flintridge Bookstore Mother Daughter Event back in January.  It was impossible to take notes, I was too busy learning how to make an origami frog, that actually jumps.  So cool!

Naomi, how did you come up with the idea for 1001 Cranes?  Did you spend your summers making displays as a child?

I grew up with origami.  My mother is from Japan and she had this great origami how-to book (this is before origami became so popular in the U.S.) from Japan.  I poured over that book and while my parents bowled in a league, I’d bring my origami papers and fold cranes, penguins, etc.

I didn’t even know about the wedding displays until I was a reporter and editor at a Japanese bilingual newspaper in Little Tokyo.  Actually, I thought it was a bit bizarre because the cranes are glued together closed – one of the best thing about origami cranes is that you get to pull the wings open.

While working in the community, I learned that these 1001 crane displays had grown into a mini-cottage industry.  I found that fascinating.

Origami Frog Lift-Off
You grew up in Pasadena and even attended an immersion school with the target language being Japanese.  How was that experience? Do you think it is different for kids today as there are many programs being developed for immersion?

I attended an intensive Saturday language school (three hours long) and there are still a number of them in existence today.  I hated attending Japanese school.  Being an immigrant’s kid, I wanted to blend it as much as possible.  Go to Friday night sleepovers and watch cartoons on Saturday morning.  And believe it or not, learning Japanese wasn’t cool at that time.  Now my photocopy clerk is spouting Japanese words that he learned in watching anime.  It’s a different world.  Especially in California, knowing another language is definitely seen as more of an asset, but I bet in certain neighborhoods, there are still a few teenagers who hiss at their parents at the mall or movie theatre, “Speak English.”

Origami Frog Airborne
What would have improved my language school experience is if they treated us more as American kids than Japanese ones.  There were expectations that none of us seemed to want to fulfill.

When you visit schools, is origami part of your presentation? How do students react?

Yes, I definitely incorporate origami.  The kids love it.  Since my book has a pink cover and the story is more soft than action-filled, origami is a way for boys to participate.  I did cranes first, but I discovered it was too difficult to teach in a large classroom setting.  From a origamist (yes, there are such people), I learned how to make a frog from an index card.  That’s worked out so much better because it’s simpler and index cards can be easily found at any office supply store and even classrooms.

Origami Frog Lands
Was race an advantage for you as an author?  Do you feel that the bi-cultural trend is here to stay?

In terms of race, I don’t think it’s neither helped nor hindered my publishing journey.  There are so many fabulous writers of color.  The publishers are going to be most concerned about the work itself.  There are a number of multicultural stories written by writers outside of that ethnic experience.  I do think schools are looking for stories that speak to diversity, but many times it may involve a book that is set in another country.  What is trickier is writing about an American community like Japanese Americans.  Right now I’m working on an American steam-punk story with a Japanese American female protagonist.  We don’t see too many characters of color in fantasy-inspired works.

In your bio, you spoke of the stories that have stayed with you from Japanese Americans, who were interned during WWII.  Is Grandma Michi one of those stories?  On your website, you mention that both your parents were interned as well.

Actually, my parents weren’t interned; they were in Hiroshima during the atomic-bombing.  But I have relatives in Northern California who were forcibly removed and incarcerated in Wyoming during World War II.  Through the newspaper and my oral history projects, I interviewed hundreds of individuals who were among the 120,000 internees.  Learning about a Japanese American orphanage in Silverlake inspired me to create a character like Grandma Michi.

You spoke of the 1001 Cranes display being a Japanese American custom.  On your website, you share with us how the Senbazuru, or a thousand cranes, became an important symbol for the girl, Sadako Sasaki, who suffered from the radiation poisoning from bombing of Hiroshima.  If this custom is Japanese American, how did it become a worldwide symbol for peace?

The thousand cranes, from Japan, is a symbol of peace.  Add one crane for luck and you get 1001 cranes and the Japanese American displays.

I saw the article on your site about two young women making a memorial for the Topaz Relocation Center.  And how did you find the girls and their project?  Did they find you?  I was so moved by their goal to make 120 thousand plus cranes. I have emailed them to see if they still need some.  I might give it a try with the instructions in your book.

Yes, I’m glad that you got in touch with them!  I met them at a Denver conference on the internment and I told them that I would spread the word.

Ok, I am actually going to attempt to fold a crane. I did the frog, well enough, so I feel I can graduate to cranes.  This is me doing it; (photo or video will be inserted on blog).

Any crane folding tips that Grandma Michi didn’t mention in the book?


So I better not miss a step then!

Watch Crane Creation Video
You have several adult books out- Mas Arai mysteries. You spoke of how much harder it is to write for the tween age group. What is different? Do you write about topics you know?  Or do you research any field or topic and create a voice?  Especially for MG/YA, should the author have some connection to the subject matter, specifically in regards to historical fiction?

The voice of a tween protagonist must be spot-on.  Some people are surprised to discover that I don’t have children yet write in this genre.  But that’s the thing – you can’t be an adult looking down at a child.  You can’t be a mom or dad when you are writing that book.  You have to embody the whole personhood of that tween character.  You have to remember how it was like when you yourself was bullied or had that first crush.  How you hated your parents at times.  Yes, technology has us in a whirl, but those essential things have not changed.
In terms of topics, you write what you are passionate about.  You travel, go to libraries and museums, look at photographs over the Internet.  And read.  Reading is key.  Sometimes I go to writing conferences and young emerging writers tell me that they are too busy to read.  That drives me crazy!  Layers of books inform our writing.  In terms of historical fiction, oral histories have been a help to me.  Having a personal connection drives me – I know interviews I did with two sisters born at the turn of the 20th century still resonate me as I write about California in 1918.

I couldn’t agree with you more. Reading is key. I read every night.  There are so many stories that inspire me and give me such energy to continue working on my own.  I feel there is always time to read, especially for writers.

And as for personal connection, you hit it on the nose. I heard a story that 30 years later is the basis for my YA historical fiction novel, so I think it is safe to say that it too resonated with me.

If you haven’t read 1001 Cranes, do!  It’s a great read and will take you on a journey in our own backyard.

I would like to thank Naomi for this interview.
For more of Naomi’s work, read her new Mas Arai mystery, Blood Hina.


  1. Thank you Naomi and Hilde. I want to take the journey and read 1001 Cranes.
    I couldn't agree more about the voice for YA and MG

  2. I had fun with the frog.

  3. This brings back memories of when I made paper cranes with my mother (who is Japanese). She always had wonderful colored papers to play with.

  4. Awesome interview! I once thought I'd try and get into Origami, but my manual dexterity wasn't quite a fit. :) Love your blog!

  5. What a wonderful interview with Naomi Hilde. Great job! And origami is a great activity to do with little kids. They really love it.

  6. I LOVE origami and have made the crane and the leaping frog, but am still a beginner. This book sounds wonderful -- as was the interview. Thanks!

  7. Fascinating interview, Hilde and Naomi. I must add 1001 Cranes to my reading list. I was particularly interested to read about Naomi's journalism background and how it informs her fiction writing, as I have a journalism background too. So impressed you mastered the origami crane, Hilde. Great demo!


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