Hannah's Winter by Kierin Meehan (Kane/Miller, 2009, published in Australia, 2001, 205pp, middle grade).
"...this medicine is so powerful that it can warm cold stone and make dragons happy. Keep it safe, keep it with you. The time of the deep snow is coming and you may find it useful." (page 141)
The time of the deep snow is coming...and I read faster and faster, caught up in a haunted Japan where three children are following a trail of clues that will bring peace to the ghost of a restless boy. Cold winds are blowing, and a malevolent presence is fighting against them. But strengthened by delicious donuts, and guided by wonderful, magical signs and coincidences, they will prevail...
12 year-old Australian Hannah has been left to stay with a Japanese family while her eccentric mother searches for the secret gardens of Japan. When a surprise delivery arrives at the family's stationary shop (the father is a collector of antique paper and ephemera), Hannah and Miki, the daughter of the family, find an ancient message--a riddle that tells how they can help "the ocean boy." Following the clues the riddle gives them, the girls, along with Hiro, a boy with his own sad past, set out to bring the ocean boy (a slightly rascally, donut-throwing ghost) back to his family. From the temple of secrets to the place where the old mountain god waits, they travel through a magical, story-filled Japan, where the deep snows of winter are falling...
"We say western Japan lies in the east's shadow. Perhaps in our winter dark, the screens between past and present thin and weaken, and ghosts slip more easily between the two." (page 39)
This is an utterly wonderful book. If it doesn't make you want to go to Japan, nothing will. It has magic in spades, yet the fantasy elements are set in a funny, matter-of-fact story that even the non-fantasy reader should enjoy.
Here's one of my favorite bits:
"Granny," said Okaasan, "today I don't want to hear one word about souls or ghosts or small samurai boys. Not one more word. It's bad enough that the great suit of armor in the living room has been blowing out yellow smoke for the past hour. I don't mean I don't like the samurai, because I do. But why does his smoke have to smell? I'm not saying it's not a good smell, it's a little like freshly cut timber. I'm just saying that if he must blow smoke around, I'd prefer it was odorless." (p 153).
I love this book. Give it to your older middle school child who loves fantasy, who loves things Japanese, who loves stories of travel. Read it yourself. Appreciate the appendix, which gives a nice historical and cultural background to the story. Go to Japan and find a donut shop.
Note on the cover--this might appeal to kids already drawn to Japan, but it gives No Clue that this is a fantasy book. They should have put a dragon on it. I don't much care for the Australian cover either.
Other reviews: A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy, A Fuse #8 Production, and at 3T News and Reviews, a blog where three library turtles share their thoughts...It's interesting to see how people pick up on different things in the same book. For Liz at Tea Cozy and Betsy at Fuse #8, the main strength of the book seems to be its portrayal of Japan. From Liz: "Japan and Hannah's Japanese family are never portrayed as the "exotic other." From Betsy: "Meehan has a dead keen talent for conjuring up the feel of different places, temperatures, colors, and sights. You don't just get a sense of Japan in this book. You live it." Atlas the Turtle, on the other hand, wrote that "The first part of the book begins to feel like a travel guide, trying to cram in as many Japanese words and cultural tidbits as possible."
But none of these reviews mention the haiku-loving dragon.