3 out of 4 stars
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As an American living in Japan, I like to consider myself an advocate for introducing Japanese culture to the Western world. You can imagine my delight when I was given the opportunity to read and review Claire Youmans’s novel for middle-grade readers, Chasing Dreams, the second volume of The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series, which is set in a mythological Japan sometime during the Meiji period (1868-1912). I did not read the first book of this series, but this volume includes a prologue containing a summary of the events from book one, leading up to the beginning of Chasing Dreams. It is most important to note that Azuki has the ability to transform into a toki, a type of large bird with extremely valuable feathers, and Shota can transform into a sparrow.
Following the rather dramatic and traumatic events of the previous book, Azuki has escaped imprisonment thanks to the help of her younger brother Shota, and the two of them are currently in hiding under the protection of a nomadic monk. Posing as the monk’s student, Azuki disguises herself as a boy while Shota takes to his sparrow form and keeps a look-out from the skies as the three of them travel across their region in order to meet with Lord Eitaro. As recent orphans, Lord Eitaro is now responsible for their future, and he holds the power to send them to any low-ranking position that he wishes. Meanwhile, the children discover valuable information that could help give Lord Eitaro an advantage in an upcoming battle over their homeland. During their journey, the children encounter a variety of interesting creatures and people.
I’m not sure if my own personal knowledge of Japanese culture was a help or a hindrance for me in reading this novel. It was fun to see something in print (and in English) about an uncommon topic that I know about from first-hand experience, especially regarding food, clothing, and old traditions. Sometimes the Japanese words are used for concepts that do not easily translate into English, with excellent descriptions to explain those words. The author definitely does a good job accurately depicting traditional Japanese culture and making it easy to understand. There are also pictures of old Japanese paintings from this time period included at the beginning of each chapter, and the paintings seem to follow along with the characters or events in the story.
On the other hand, because none of this information was new to me, I found it a bit easy to get bored while I was reading. Some sections made me feel like I was reading a dry anthropological passage or a Japanese political history textbook; though I could tolerate it due to my own interest in such ideas, I’m not sure that younger readers would be able to push themselves through such heavy topics. Perhaps reading the first book would help; even adding more dialogue to the text would be helpful. Young Shota, who always asks a lot of questions anyway, would be a good source to help dig for information, rather than just presenting the information as facts in long paragraphs.
I give this book a rating of 3 out of 4 stars. For younger readers, it would probably be better to read the first book of the series before reading this book, to prevent being bogged down with so much new information at the beginning of the story. I would recommend this book to middle-grade readers up through adults who are interested in the traditional mythology of Japan.
The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy Book 2 Chasing Dreams
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