I don’t think that there is a better anti-war story written for 6- to 12-year-olds than Sadako and the Thousand Cranes, by Eleanor Coerr. It is somber yet fast paced. It is well-written and all the more moving because it is based on a true story of a girl in Japan who developed leukemia after being exposed to the radiation of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.
According to Japanese myth, because a crane can live for 1,000 years, if a person who is sick folds 1,000 origami cranes, the gods will grant his or her wish to be healthy again. Sadako, along with her friends and relatives, works at the task of folding the paper cranes. She makes it only to 644 before the disease overcomes her and she dies.
I have used this book various times in the early elementary grades, the last in 1995 during the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. I also chose it because a dad, visiting because his son was “Special Person of the Week,” had given a colorful and engaging presentation glorifying bombers.
Judging from their level of concentration and the expressions on their faces, the kids in my class were enthralled with Sadako. As one girl wrote in a book report, “At the end of each chapter there is a sort of a mystery, and I like mysteries.”
Even though the students knew the ending from the preface of the book, they were shocked when Sadako died. “What? She died?” several kids said in disbelief. I saw tears in their eyes, even as we were reading about the uplifting actions of Sadako’s classmates.
I chose to do a reader’s response activity in which my students were given a paper with a section boxed-off. They were asked to draw a scene from the story and then draw themselves, either as a character in the scene or as someone on the outside of the box, looking in. The reader’s response drawing activity resulted in the same level of involvement as reading the story aloud. Kids worked quietly and intensely on their pictures, taking twice the time I had planned.
Sadako being such a tragic story, I had anticipated that most kids would draw themselves at a distance from the actions of the story. Interestingly, 10 out of 20 children drew themselves as a character inside the story; one girl saw herself as Sadako. (Kou, the only Asian American student in my class, drew herself outside the story, looking at Sadako’s statue, but created a new name for herself. Above the picture of herself, she wrote, “Kadako,” which she explained was “Kou plus Sadako.”)
The fact that most of the students who pictured themselves as characters inside the story were friends, relatives, or nurses helping Sadako revealed strong feelings of attachment to the main character. The drawings were very detailed, showing recollections of many different scenes and images from the book.
As an anti-war book, Sadako proved to be successful. Three children drew the scene of the bomb exploding, one of them putting himself into the scene as a cop who was “rushing to save Sadako by shooting the bomb to make it backfire and blow the plane up.” Students expressed in their drawings and writing the power of this story. “This is Sadako when she is dead,” said Kari, “and all the people are watching her. I am outside. Even the sun is sad.”
In the epilogue to Sadako and the Thousand Cranes, the author explains that Sadako’s classmates folded 356 more cranes, which were buried with her. A monument was built to Sadako to honor all children killed by the atomic bomb and to promote peace. Every year on Aug. 6, Peace Day in Japan (and the anniversary of the atomic bomb blast), paper cranes made by children all around the world are placed by the statue of Sadako in Hiroshima Peace Park. My students were inspired to make origami cranes, which we sent to Japan. We received not only a thank you letter, but also a color photograph of our cranes beside the famous statue.
The paper crane project, albeit a small contribution to world peace, enabled my students to feel that they had made a personal statement about a very difficult issue.
Sadako and the Thousand Cranes is also published in Spanish as Sadako y las mil grullas de papel.