Tim Wynne-Jones’ latest work The Emperor of Any Place, has popped up on a lot of recommendation lists recently. It is one of YALSA’s 2016 Best Fiction for Young Adults, is one of School Library Journal’s best books of 2015, and is on Horn Books fanfare list. Any Place has a great deal to recommend it and, like many works with an historic element, has the potential to awaken a desire to learn more in its readers.
In Any Place Wynne-Jones delves into such topics as the Pacific Theater in World War II, the mythology of Japan, the experience of that war from the viewpoint of both Japanese and American soldiers, and relationships ranging from those of enemies in battle to beloved family members. It will appeal to those with an interest in history, as well to those who enjoy both realistic dramas, mysteries, and magic realism.
The Emperor of Any Place tells the story of a 16-year-old boy named Evan whose father has very unexpectedly passed away. With little other choice, he contacts his estranged grandfather for help. At the same time he discovers a copy of the diary of a Japanese soldier stranded on a mysterious island in the Pacific during WWII, which Evan’s father was reading just before his death. The diary’s prologue, as well as some of Evan’s father’s last words, hint that his grandfather may have played a sinister role in the author’s life. Evan makes the decision to hide the diary and read it in secret while at the same time clashing dramatically with his militaristic grandfather and dealing with his grief.
The vivid and exciting diary that comprises at least half of the novel grabs a reader’s attention and makes them wonder about what is happening beyond the purview of the story. Was the battle of Tinian really as it was described? Did Japanese civilians and soldiers really believe that the Americans would commit horrible acts of savagery, such as eating babies? And are the strange and terrible creatures that haunt the island made up just for this novel, or do they have a basis in Japanese mythology?
To answer these questions, readers may consult a number of non-fiction resources that can help to answer these questions and more. While the uniqueness of the story makes it hard to find solid read-alikes, I have also included a few fiction novels that might be good follow-ups for fans of Wynne-Jones’ compelling story.
Non-Fiction Resources on WWII in the Pacific
More than half of Any Place is composed of diary accounts of the lives of Isamu Oshiro and Derwood Kraft, both of whom are stranded on the same island in the Marianas. For those students who fall in love with this more personal and individual approach to history, there are a number of other accounts, both in print and available online, with which they might like to follow up.
Breaking the Code: A Father’s Secret a Daughter’s Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything by Karen Fisher-Alaniz is an ideal non-fiction companion to Any Place. While it doesn’t delve into fantastical islands and mythological creatures, it is the story of a younger generation uncovering their forefathers actions in WWII through their own writing. In this case it is Karen Fisher-Alaniz seeking to help her aging father come to terms with his experiences in WWII by reading, researching and discussing his letters from that time. The books is an easy and compelling read cutting between Fisher-Alaniz’s account of her discussions with her father, her family, and others as she researches WWII and transcribed copies of her father’s letters.
Eyewitness accounts can be a powerful tool for learning about historical events. In Eyewitness Pacific Theater: Firsthand Accounts of the War in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor to the Atomic Bombs by John T Kuehn and D.M. Giangreco, readers are provided with not only chapters providing general overviews of events leading up to war with Japan and many of the battles throughout the war, but also personal statements from individuals in the US and Japanese forces who took part in the events described. Eyewitness also includes a CD of selected interviews and explanatory narrations, providing another option for those who prefer to listen to their history.
If your library doesn’t own a copy of Eyewitness, there are a number of online collections of WWII accounts that will work as great alternatives. The National World War Two Museum, for example, has a video oral history collection. These videos cut between the individual who is telling about their experience and archived footage from the war.
While the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are only mentioned in passing in Any Place, any study of WWII should include information about both. First published in 1946, John Hersey’s Hiroshima tells the true and truly horrifying personal accounts of six survivors of the atomic bomb dropped by the United States on August 6, 1945. Hersey records the experiences of a clerk, a widow, a Methodist minister, a Jesuit, a doctor and a surgeon for up to a year after the bombing, and in an additional chapter (first published in 1985) he includes an account of what happened to these and other hibakusha (explosion-affected people) forty years later. The 1985 Kirkus review describes this book beautifully calling it “A truly disquieting work of human journalism, which still has the capacity to stun and shock.”
For visual learners, Ken Burns’ The War provides an overview of WWII as told from the perspectives of several American soldiers. The 7 part series looks at the European, African and Pacific fronts. While not all teens will be up for the full 14 hour presentation, episode 4. “Pride of our Nation” includes the battles mentioned at the beginning of Oshiro’s journal.
Japanese Culture and Mythology
In one amazingly effective sequence, Wynne-Jones recounts part of the battle of Tinian through Oshiro’s eyes. He envisions the battle as a Banraku puppet production in a vivid hallucination. While I’m sure there are print resources where Banraku can be read about, a visual example may be more engaging.
The Japan Foundation has published several youtube videos of Banraku performances. One interesting example is an excerpt from The Sonezaki Love Suicides. Love Suicides is a by the famous playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon and was first published in 1703. The work has been equated by some with Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.
For those who are ready for a little more in-depth information including Banraku history and details about the puppets and stage construction, the Japan Arts Council has put together a pretty friendly website with some general information and great pictures.
The bizarre creatures that haunt Kokoro-Jima, the heart-shaped island on which Oshiro and Kraft are marooned, are another potential area of interest for readers.
Checking my own library’s shelves I wasn’t able to find many with references to the Jikininki, the horrible creatures that seek to eat the dead bodies of the soldiers who wash up on the island. One collection of Japanese ghost stories, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn, does include a story about Jikininki haunting a mountain village. This work is available online for free through Project Gutenberg if it is not found in your library.
Tales of Tengu, the bird-faced monster that attacks Oshiro and Kraft, can be found in a number of different places. One good example is a collection of folktales entitled Japanese Tales, edited and translated by Royall Tyler. Among the over 200 Japanese tales are several stories about Tengu. Each one is short, easy to read, and a great choice for any fan of myths, legends, and folktales.
YA WWII Fiction in the Pacific
While nonfiction resources like those mentioned above can help enrich a reader’s understanding of Any Place, for others, a fiction read-alike will always be the preferred choice.
For younger readers, Photographs in the Mud by Dianne Wolfer provides a stark view on the cost of war and particularly the hand-to-hand combat during WWII battles on Papaua New Guiniea. As in Any Place two young soldiers, one Australian, one Japanese, are wounded and find themselves spending time in each other’s company. Over a single long night, the two men share images of their families left behind, but only one of them survives his wounds.
Manga, and it’s ability to examine important historical and social topics, plays important role in Any Place. Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima by Keiji Nakazawa is for this reason a fantastic choice to read alongside the novel. In Barefoot Gen Nakazawa, a survivor of the 1945 bombing himself, recounts the experiences of a young boy directly before and after the bombing. Meryl Jaffe, writing for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund website, calls this work “a strong anti-war piece that cannot and should not be silenced.”
Eyes of the Emperor by Graham Salisbury is the tale of a 16-year-old Hawaiian boy of Japanese descent who lies about his age in order to join the U.S. Army. While he and his friends were driven by patriotism and the desire to defend their country, the army isn’t convinced. What follows is a disturbing and haunting look at WWII and the racism faced by Japanese-American citizens.
Finally, the graphic novel The Faceless Ghost and Other Macabre Tales from Japan by Sean Michael Wilson and Michiru Morikawa provides another take on some of the traditional ghost stories that are featured in Kwaidan which is mentioned above. Wilson and Morikawa depict six of these stories and allows readers to imagine yet another way that Oshiro and Kraft’s stories could have been told.
— Miriam Wallen, currently reading Assassin’s Heart by Sarah Ahiers