Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes
by Eleanor Coerr
G. P. Putnam's Sons
During the past few weeks, Hongkongers have been folding paper cranes to show their support for the people of Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, and in the wake of the events unfolding at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The practice is a Japanese tradition: it is said you can make a wish on 1,000 of the origami birds.
This is the central premise of the children's book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by American writer Eleanor Coerr (1922-2010), who worked as a reporter in Japan after the second world war. During that time, she witnessed at first-hand the impact of the atomic bomb attacks on the country. A statue commemorating the life of Japanese girl Sadako Sasaki, erected in 1958 in Hiroshima Peace Park, inspired Coerr to write the book.
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes is based on the life of Sadako, born in 1943, and living in Hiroshima when the US dropped the 'Little Boy' bomb on the city on August 6, 1945. The narrative begins on Peace Day, August 1954. We learn that Sadako 'was born to be a runner' and that 'there was not a speck of cloud in the blue sky. It was a good sign. Sadako was always on the lookout for good signs.' This sets up the narrative for the later introduction of the paper cranes, and heightens the sense of a young life destroyed by war.
As the story unfolds, Sadako becomes ill. She has leukaemia, a result of the radiation she was exposed to from the atomic bomb. Her dreams of becoming a runner slip away as she is treated in hospital. One day, her friend Chizuko visits her, and folds a paper crane out of gold paper. 'Don't you remember that story about the old crane?' Chizuko asks. 'It's supposed to live for a thousand years. If a sick person folds one thousand paper cranes, the gods will grant her a wish and make her healthy again.' And so Sadako begins a quest to reach the goal, in hopes that she will be cured. She shows immense courage as she battles her illness.
Since its publication, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes has appeared on numerous school reading lists, and it is how most North American children learn about the devastation brought by the atomic bombings of Japan, and the long-term effects of radiation on people and the environment.
The courage of one little girl transformed the thinking of an entire generation - the story of Sadako personalised Japan's postwar tragedy, and made it a topic children could understand.
As the workers in Fukushima fight to ensure the collective safety, putting their own lives at risk for the greater good, a book like this helps us to remember, cherish and honour the heroes in our everyday lives.