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Falling into the Dragon's Mouth Hardcover – April 19, 2016
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From School Library Journal
Gr 6 Up—Jason is an American sixth grader living in Japan. As a foreigner, he stands out and is relentlessly bullied by his classmates while the teacher turns a blind eye. His only refuge is in the practice of Aikido, where he learns to center himself. The themes of bullying, feeling isolated, not fitting in, and striving to change the system are familiar landscape for Thompson, and fans of her teen books—Orchards (2011) and The Language Inside (2013, both Random)—will relish her first novel for younger readers. The plot builds slowly at first as the characters and setting are established. Readers' patience will be rewarded as the tension mounts between Jason and the bullies who torment him, leading to a heart-pounding climax when the games almost go too far. The free-verse format suits the story well, conveying Jason's emotions powerfully in few words, allowing readers to fill in the unsaid and mirroring the way Jason uses stoicism as a survival method at school. Those with some knowledge of Japanese culture will feel at ease with the setting right away, and those looking for a window to another culture will be intrigued by the realistic depiction of Japanese school life. Thompson provides a helpful glossary and cultural notes at the end, and graceful ink brush illustrations add to the atmosphere. VERDICT This stirring read will especially resonate with those who have been bullied—it will let them know they're not alone.—Allison Tran, Mission Viejo Library, CA
"To survive, Jason must rely on his own ability to listen to others, his powers of quiet observation, and, above all, his personal courage. Based on Thompson’s own family experiences living in Japan, the story rings true in every detail, and occasional, lovely brush-and-ink illustrations enhance the reader’s experience." ―Booklist on Falling into the Dragon's Mouth
". . . the tension mounts between Jason and the bullies who torment him, leading to a heart-pounding climax when the games almost go too far. The free-verse format suits the story well, conveying Jason’s emotions powerfully in few words, allowing readers to fill in the unsaid and mirroring the way Jason uses stoicism as a survival method at school. . . . This stirring read will especially resonate with those who have been bullied." ―School Library Journal on Falling into the Dragon's Mouth
"Thompson captures perfectly the feeling of belonging elsewhere. A sensitive and compelling read that will inspire teens to contemplate how they can make a difference." -School Library Journal, starred review on The Language Inside
"Thompson nimbly braids political tragedy, natural disaster, PTSD, connections among families, and a cautious, quiet romance into an elegant whole. This is an artistic picture of devastation, fragility, bonds and choices." -Kirkus Reviews on The Language Inside
"The narrative is rich in authentic cultural detail . . . Thompson has crafted an exquisite, thought-provoking story of grief and healing that will resonate with teen readers and give them much to discuss." -School Library Journal, starred review on Orchards
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Jason Parker is a likeable American kid forced to attend public school in Japan because his parents, who work at universities, can't afford to send him to one of the pricey international schools. Because of his differences, he is relentlessly abused by the worst of his classmates.
Not all of the Japanese kids are bad, however, and Jason gets some relief through his practice of aikido, where he is treated with respect, and in hanging out with his spirited younger sister.
While never preachy, Thompson suggests ways of coping with being different, such as the international study group that meets once a week outside of school, and the friendships that Jason forges with outsiders, like the elderly man suffering from Parkinson's who teaches him to play a traditonal Japanese game. This novel also offers insights on more benign aspects of Japanese culture.
This may be the book that many expat parents in Japan have been waiting for, but it would also lend itself well to class discussion in other countries, such as the United States, where bullying occurs.
Due to his racial difference, American 6th grader Jason Parker doesn't fit into his Japanese public school and becomes the target of a group of bullies who regularly resort to quick but painful physical attacks unnoticed by the adults. Thompson balances the excruciating experiences of Parker's daily life with his positive relationships with his sister, Japanese and international friends, his aikido teacher, and a man in the neighborhood who has cerebral palsy. In this way, the author prevents the story from becoming hopeless, and it ultimately reaches a positive, though realistic, ending.
One of the greatest strengths of the novel is the way that it shines a light on the lack of meaningful adult engagement when bullying is present. This is an international truth, and Thompson rightly demonstrates that adults must use their leadership to stop bullying and to build school cultures to prevent it in the first place. This happens naturally in the story, not in a stilted way.
Falling into the Dragon's Mouth is written in verse that moves the reader through the book with power and grace. Holly Thompson has successfully written another compelling book, which I know I will reread several times. I highly recommend this title to middle and high school readers, as well as to adults like myself who appreciate literature for young people.