On August 6th, 1945, the world changed. Not with the slow march of history, not with the gentle hiss of the proverbial hour-glass. But, rather, with a second Big Bang, an explosion and a crash and a searing that both ended and remade our society. Like the shadows that were burned onto its ruined streets, the spectre of Hiroshima, and of the atomic bomb that was detonated above it, still haunts the world today, both on a global and a deeply individual level. It is this legacy that The Last Paper Crane is really about, how when a pebble (or, perhaps, in this case, a boulder) breaks the surface of still water, its ripples can endure and expand across miles and through decades.
This stunning and powerful book, from Carnegie-nominated author Kerry Drewery, wrestles with how humanity manages to be both as beautiful as it is terrible and as cruel as it is lovely. It’s this juxtaposition, perhaps even paradox, that lies at the heart of both its story and of humankind; our unwavering tendency to sin and our unfaltering quest for redemption. Understanding the world means reconciling these two opposing threads, entwining them as the universe’s DNA. That is exactly what Drewery has done with The Last Paper Crane, a book that quietly hums melodies of both praise and lamentation, turning the confusing discordance of one of history’s darkest moments into a sad lullaby of understanding and an ode to the durability of the human spirit.
The Last Paper Crane is a tale in two parts. The first centres of Mizuki, a young girl who is worried about the dark secret that is clearly engulfing her widower grandfather, Ichiro, and her efforts to coax it out of him. The second is then the explanation of this hidden history that dates back to the day of the bomb and its immediate aftermath. After the truth has finally spilled from Ichiro, Mizuki sets herself the mission of lifting his burden.
It’s not just narratively that The Last Paper Crane is split, stylistically too it also divides neatly in half. Ichiro’s story is told in simple but poetic prose, while Mizuki’s is told with actual poetry, a mixture of free verse and haikus.
The use of poetry is far more than just a gimmick and brings great depth to the story. Poetry can be the rawest form of writing, focussing on specific details of impact – both physical and emotional – and disposing of the filler that often stitches together these insights in prose. This stripped-down approach to storytelling allows the powerful but fettered emotions that pass between Mizuki and her grandfather to vibrate with vibrancy and vitality. Additionally, the peppering of haikus between longer sections of verse is a great chance for children to see the power this specific form has to capture emotional and temporal freeze-frames, making it a great resource for the classroom.
The Last Paper Crane is a book of profound moments, even in its seemingly throwaway lines. After Ichiro has finished telling his story, Mizuki remarks: ‘Suddenly he isn’t just my grandfather. He’s a person with a history, a life.’ It’s a comment that seems unstressed compared to more dramatic passages but carries within it such a universal emotional milestone. It is a realisation that every child goes through, that each and every person is as much the centre of their universe as they are of theirs, that each person has fully formed thoughts and dreams and fears. This loss of self-centredness is experienced by every child, and every child is shaken by it. Its inclusion here could be the spark of both quiet reflection and animated discussion.
A book is always more than just the words on the page, but The Last Paper Crane has been rendered particularly creatively. First, Natsko Seki’s shadowy red, black and white illustrations feel like burns and scorches on the page as they depict Hiroshima post-catastrophe. A beautiful little touch at the end is the inclusion of a sheet of origami paper with instructions of how to fold a crane (a nod to the 1,000 cranes Ichiro makes throughout the book). It is a lovely, quiet way to connect children to the text and to a culture and experience that will likely be alien to many of them. When I introduced the book of my year six class, we all made a paper crane, and it greatly heightened the excitement to read the story.
Despite this excitement, this is not a book to rush through. It’s devastating to read, and I had to close it a number of times when the realisation became too much that even though this is fiction, the terrible central event was only too real. This battering of the conscience, however, then earns the miraculous (if still slightly bittersweet) ending, a final destination that might seem twee were it not for the journey to get there.
Despite its ongoing geo-political implications, many primary school children are likely unaware of the history of Hiroshima – certainly, my year sixes had never heard of it. The damning brutality of what happened perhaps explains why it is not more widely taught, but the lessons of history must always be learned. The Last Paper Crane, by focussing more on feelings than facts, could introduce it to those in UKS2 in a more human way.
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