Chieri Uegaki, illustrated by Stephane Jorisch.
Kids Can Press. 2003.
It's the first day of school, and Suki is being stubborn. She wants to wear the kimono and geta (wooden clogs) that her grandmother gave her to school. The blue kimono is her favorite thing in the world and makes her the happiest. She is certain that everyone else will love it as well, and even though her two older sisters weigh in with their disdain (too weird, too old, way too uncool), Suki remains determined. So off she goes in her kimono on the city streets of a nondescript American town, surrounded by children in blue jeans and sweatshirts. They point at her, a few even laugh at her, but Suki just keeps going, never wavering in her certainty that her kimono is truly the best outfit ever.
Her crowning moment comes in her first grade class, when the teacher allows students to stand up and introduce themselves. Suki talks about her kimono and geta and then begins to dance in the way she learned while visiting a street festival with her grandmother. She loses herself in the memory, loving the moment with her dear grandmother and the splendor of the festival so much that it carries her far away from the classroom and all the pressures to be like everyone else. And of course everyone is won over by her dance, everyone realizes that the kimono is the best thing to wear, that being unusual is far better than being common, and Suki is victorious against all the nay-sayers, even her sisters who find that neither of them are cool enough or new enough to win any sort of attention on their first day.
Is this book all about girl power and ethnic diversity and honoring your heritage? Sure it is. Which is exactly what you would expect from the title and the lush cover illustration. But it's also such a sweetheart of a book. And while it takes us into familiar territory, it also provides a gutsy, unexpected spin. Suki never doubts, not for a minute, that she is doing the right thing. There is no predictable pitiful moment where she caves into the pressure, where she agrees that her kimono is too unique for elementary school. It is a surprise (and a relief) to read a book of this type that doesn't have the plucky heroine suffering a moment of critical indecision only to be rescued by a well-meaning teacher or other adult. Suki is so determined and so steadfast that she doesn't need anybody else. Finally, a different type of storybook with a truly original heroine.
It doesn't hurt that illustrator Jorisch's watercolor drawings are just the right kind of understated for the story. His colors do not overwhelm the text but add to it. The best spreads are those at the festival, with dozens of different colors filling the pages along with kites and drums and jumping lanterns. It is all lush and gorgeous and perfect. Combined with Chieri Uegaki's words, readers have a wonderful experience in store. All hail Suki and her very cool kimono! Now go get your hands on a copy so you can fall in love with her yourself.
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