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A Place to Belong

Book review by
Amanda Nojadera, Common Sense Media
A Place to Belong Book Poster Image
Emotional post-WWII story promotes compassion, perseverance.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

A Place to Belong is dedicated to Wayne Collins, an American civil rights attorney who helped Japanese American citizens reclaim their American citizenship after WWII. Readers will learn about the Pearl Harbor attack and the Japanese internment camps in the United States, the Dust Bowl, Hiroshima and the atomic bomb, and the ACLU. The book is also a good introduction to Japanese culture, values, and words such as nikkei which refers to someone of Japanese descent and kintsukuroi, which is the Japanese tradition of fixing broken pottery with gold lacquer.

Positive Messages

Compassion and perseverance are major themes. Always do everything you can to take care of your family. Trust that there are good, compassionate people in the world who will help you feel like you belong. Beauty can come from tragedy like the kintsukuroi (broken pottery fixed with gold lacquer) that Hanako's grandpa shows her.

Positive Role Models & Representations

All of the members of Hanako's family are working together to support and care for one another. Hanako is compassionate and wants to help others. The book is dedicated to Wayne Collins, an American civil rights attorney, who helped Japanese American reclaim their American citizenship after WWII. 

Violence

Hanako mentions that she'd had a gun pointed at her and that she saw people get teargassed at the internment camps. She often thinks about the effects of the atomic bomb, especially after encountering people who barely survived. Another character explains how his back felt like it was on fire and he saw people with blackened and bleeding skin after the atomic bomb was dropped.

Sex
Language

A couple uses of "shut up."

Consumerism

Hanako's family is often worried about having enough food to avoid starvation. They trade butter and cigarettes on the black market in exchange for rice. Pop culture mentions include Juicy Fruit, Little Women, and Monopoly.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

One mention of cigarettes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Cynthia Kadohata's A Place to Belong is an emotional historical novel about 12-year-old Japanese American Hanako and her family, who emigrate to Hiroshima after being imprisoned in an internment camp in the United States during World War II. The book is dedicated to Wayne Collins, an American civil rights attorney who helped Japanese American citizens reclaim their American citizenship after the war. Readers will learn about Pearl Harbor and the Japanese internment camps, the Dust Bowl, Hiroshima and the atomic bomb, and the ACLU. The book is also a good introduction to Japanese culture, values, and words such as nikkei, which refers to someone of Japanese descent and kintsukuroi, which is the Japanese tradition of fixing broken pottery with gold lacquer. A character mentions that she's had a gun pointed at her and often thinks about the effects of the atomic bomb. Another character explains what he saw after the atomic bomb was dropped. The characters are often worried about having enough food to avoid starvation and trade butter and cigarettes on the black market in exchange for rice.

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What's the story?

America has been the only home that 12-year-old Japanese-America Hanako has ever known. But when Japanese bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor, Hanako's family was viewed as the enemy because of their Japanese heritage and imprisoned in internment camps for four years. Her dad, knowing that they're no longer welcome in America, decides that they should give up their American citizenship and thinks they'll be safest with his parents who live in a small farming village just outside of Hiroshima. Although Hanako isn't sure what to expect when they arrive in Japan, she hopes that her family will be able to rebuild their lives and open a restaurant like the one they had in America. But she quickly learns that she isn't welcome in Japan either after America dropped its own bombs on Hiroshima. Once again viewed as outsiders and the enemy, will Hanako and her family ever find A PLACE TO BELONG?

Is it any good?

Cynthia Kadohata has crafted an emotional historical novel that vividly depicts post-WWII life for Japanese and Japanese American citizens. She delicately presents this dark chapter of world history and its aftermath in a way that's easy for kids to understand, while also highlighting the importance of compassion and perseverance. It's clear that Hanako loves her family deeply and will do anything to make them happy, but her willingness to help others often forces her to make tough moral decisions. Should she give food to a boy who barely survived the atomic bomb when there's hardly enough for her family? Should she help her grandparents in the field or go to school? Should she stay in Japan with her family even though there's no future for her as a tenant farmer's granddaughter or return to America?

There are many heartrending moments in A Place to Belong, but readers will understand that like the kintsukuroi (broken pottery fixed with gold lacquer) that Hanako's grandpa showed her, there will always be good, compassionate people who will help you rebuild and feel like you belong.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about historical fiction. What kinds of details show that A Place to Belong is taking place in a different time from our own? What do you like about reading historical novels?

  • Did you know about the internment of Japanese and Japanese American people in the United States during World War II before you read this book? Do you think it should be more widely discussed in school?

  • Is the story's ending happy, sad, bittersweet? Do you find it satisfying?

  • How do the characters demonstrate compassion and perseverance? Why are these important character strengths?

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