A podcast interview in partnership with Kathleen Burkinshaw, author of The Last Cherry Blossom
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, Kathleen Burkinshaw talks about her novel for kids and teens, The Last Cherry Blossom.
The Last Cherry Blossom is a devastatingly beautiful story that reminds us that the people we think don’t belong, the people who seem different from ourselves, or the ones we deem ‘the enemy,’ are not so different from us after all.
Listen to the Interview
Kathleen Burkinshaw is a Japanese American author and the daughter of a Hiroshima survivor. She wrote The Last Cherry Blossom based on her mother’s story of growing up in Hiroshima during World War II. It is through her mother’s twelve-year-old eyes that readers witness the atomic bombing of August 6, 1945. Kathleen lives with her husband and daughter in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Read the Interview
Bianca Schulze: Hi, Kathleen. Welcome to the Growing Readers podcast.
Kathleen Burkinshaw: Hello, Bianca. Thank you so much for having me here.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, my gosh. It is such an honor to talk to you today about your book, The Last Cherry Blossom. I know this story is really special to you because it’s based on your mother’s first-hand experience surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during World War II, and it’s honestly the true definition of the word poignant.
Kathleen Burkinshaw: Thank you.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, you’re welcome. While reading it, I had quite a few emotional moments, and a thought I pretty much have any time I hear of the devastating effects of the atomic bomb or any war is how can events such as this, inflicted by humans, even be true. And another is why, after such tragic circumstances recorded in history, are we still experiencing war? And to me, The Last Cherry Blossom works incredibly well to warn readers of the catastrophic impact war and nuclear weapons have on humanity. And it reminded me why it’s so important that stories like your mom’s are written down and shared. So, I think the first question I want to ask is: What was the driving force within you to make sure that we all got to share in your mom’s story and that it’s in a children’s book?
Kathleen Burkinshaw: That is a really great question, and I’ll start with it began with my daughter. When she was in 7th grade, she came home from school very upset. They had just finished the last section of World War II, and she said she overheard some kids talking about that cool mushroom cloud picture, and she wanted me to talk about who was under the cloud, like her grandmother that day, to her class so they’d understand more. And that is really what first got me to even speak about it publicly. Because my mom always told me growing up that she was from Tokyo. She didn’t even say Hiroshima. I didn’t know until I was eleven that she was actually from there. She had horrible nightmares all the time, but in August, it was worse.
And I remembered that the summer before was just as bad. And I finally kept asking her why, and then she finally just told me that she was actually born in Hiroshima, but she lost her family and her home and her friends to the atomic bombing. She wouldn’t say anything else, and it was still too painful, is what she had told me. And then she said, don’t tell anyone. So, I really didn’t know very much until I was actually in my early thirties. I was very ill and nearly died from a blood clot, and I was in the hospital for over a month. So, once I got home, I needed help taking care of myself.
And my daughter was four at the time, and my husband worked during the day.So, my parents came, and that is also when I received the diagnosis of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. And that’s a chronic neurological pain disease that affects your sympathetic nervous system as well as your immune system, and it progresses. And the physicians have stated that my immune system deficiencies are related to the radiation my mom was exposed to during the atomic bombing. And I don’t know if she would have ever really told me very much about it, except for the fact that when I got that diagnosis, I had to leave another career that I had worked hard for. I didn’t know what would end up happening to me with needing help with walking and taking care of myself. So, I became just very depressed.
So, my mom slowly started to talk to me about August 6 and the days afterward. And then she told me, I’m telling you this now because I wanted to end my life when I lost everyone. But I’m so glad I didn’t because I had you. And I now have your daughter to love. And you have the same strength flowing through your veins as I did. And so, you’ll find your own new way. And that was really the first time I knew more about what had happened to her that day.
So, my daughter was in 7th grade, and I had to ask her. I didn’t really think she let me do it. She was very private about it, and she surprised me so much by saying yes. And the reason is that the students in my daughter’s class would have been about the same age my mom was—she was twelve and a half when the bomb was dropped—and might relate to her better in the everyday stuff that she went through. And the major piece was that they would all be voters someday, so they’d walk out of that classroom knowing nuclear weapons shouldn’t be used again. And so, from that start with my daughter, I started speaking to her class and then to other schools.
Then that’s when some teachers had asked about a book because they really didn’t have anything on the Pacific side as far as what was happening there other than the book by John Hersey about Hiroshima then. So, I remember calling up my mom and telling her I’d written a lot of stuff down for my daughter’s purposes. But I mentioned the book, and my mom was shocked because her words were why would anyone care about a little girl in Hiroshima? And I think that is what also prompted me to want to continue to tell her story and by making it at the age that she was.
I felt, too, that students in these middle grades and in high school have that empathy that starts to be planted in their hearts. And I felt that if I could get this story out and it would not just talk about getting rid of nuclear weapons but also seeing the humanity that was under the clouds that day because I think we need to connect with that because that’s why so many things get forgotten because these stories are not told.
Bianca Schulze: I think that’s the part that really gets to me about any kind of war is that there’s always the civilians, the lives that are impacted that really don’t want the war or don’t necessarily want anything to do with the war or they’re just living their lives, and so many people get impacted. And I feel like the story shows that.
Kathleen Burkinshaw: Thank you.
Bianca Schulze: This might be a hard question. Is your mom still with us?
Kathleen Burkinshaw: Unfortunately, no. She passed away in January 2015, but I was very blessed. She was 82 years old. She had not been ill until the last few months, and she knew the book was going to be published. I received a contract in November of 2014, and I brought it to her, and that’s when she said to me that she was still surprised. But she said, you know, I never knew why I was still alive when I lost everyone, but now I know I couldn’t tell my story, so you can do it for me. And so, she got to know that it was coming out. She got to read a couple of the drafts, and then she passed away two months after that. So, I’m just very glad that she knew that people would care about that little girl.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. And we do care. Oh, my gosh. I’m so grateful that she got to read the story that you wrote for her and for all of us. How is your RSD today?
Kathleen Burkinshaw: It is progressing. I’ve had a lot of issues with my hands lately as well, and the pain is in my legs, so I’ve had spinal surgery a few times to put in a spinal cord stimulator kind of blocked some of the pain. And last February around this time, I had to have surgery to replace all the leads in my spine, and that and there was an issue, and so I wasn’t able to walk for a couple of months at all, and I had to learn to walk again by using a walker this past year. So, it’s been a tough time for this. I knew it would progress as I got a little bit older, but having the surgery and then having some kind of an issue with the device itself temporarily caused that. The extra pain in the right leg, where I didn’t have it before, really does impact what I can and cannot do, unfortunately.
Bianca Schulze: So, what do you do on the really hard days to sort of help ease your pain and get through?
Kathleen Burkinshaw: What I try to do is sometimes I will watch some kind of comedy. Other times I will write in, like, a journal. And even if my hands are hurting a little bit, I try to do something like that, especially on the bad days, to get what I’m feeling out. And sometimes it can lead me then into maybe thinking about a scene for another book or what I’m doing. So, I try to occupy myself with that. And if I can, even on a bad day, if I’m able to use my recording piece on my phone, I can record some words that maybe I could use towards another story. I have some wonderful friends who I can speak to during that time. My husband has been my rock through all of my sickness. We’ve been married for 32 years this year.
Bianca Schulze: Congratulations.
Kathleen Burkinshaw: Thank you. Thank you. If I didn’t have him, I would have never made it through this past recovery from the surgery. And he also helps me when I do school visits in person. He’s the one that brings me; he sets me up. I kid around. I say he’s my roadie for all of that. So, he has helped a great deal. And also, if I’m having a bad day and it’s not like a flare-up, I love speaking with students because it just brings me joy to see in them when they’re asking certain questions and the compassion that they have. And it just touches me, and it makes me feel like, okay, this is why I want to keep pushing. And, of course, my daughter has a way of doing that for me, too. She’s out of the house now. She’s older. But I think that if I didn’t have all of those pieces, it would be very dark for me without them.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. Well, how did you go about writing The Last Cherry Blossom? So, what was your writing process in terms of taking what your mom told you and then creating a story out of it?
Kathleen Burkinshaw: Sure. Well, first, I had taken down what she had said, but then I really wanted to research more about daily life in Japan. As you may recall, there’s a picture in the back of the book, and it’s of my mom and her Papa when she was probably about three years old there. And that was always in a special place in our home. And she had sent me a copy of that picture after I had that conversation with her about writing a book. And so, when I looked at that, I was really determined; I’m going to start the book about a year before the bomb is dropped. I wanted to show that she did have happy memories. I wanted to show the differences in what their culture was as well as what was being told to them; what was the political mindset at that time? Because I think that it’s very hard to get that kind of emotional or even some kind of an impact when you have just a few paragraphs that say that it ends the war.
And then you have that famous picture. I wanted to kind of show them how long they had been at war by that time and that there weren’t many soldiers left in Hiroshima, even though it was once a very big military port, to kind of get that feel. And also, by doing this, I wanted them, as the reader, to see that the children in Japan, my mom, they loved their families. They worried about what might happen to them. They all wished for peace. And it was the same thing that the ally children were wishing and thinking and feeling to show that connection there. Like you were saying, the citizens, the daily people, the ones that are getting hurt, to separate them from whatever the rulers or armies may be doing, it’s the people who end up getting hurt in these situations.
And I really feel that if we don’t make those connections, no matter how many statistics we can give out, no matter how much money it may cost to keep up nuclear weapons, no matter how much they say that we might need them, which that’s a whole other category, but they need to connect with the people. If they don’t know these stories, if they don’t connect with all the lives that were shattered and all the people that lost loved ones, that lost their homes, and there were also like lifetimes of physical and emotional scarring that went on beyond just a lot of times. They will always say how many people died from the atomic bombings within the first year of over 150,000 people, but they don’t always talk about the thousands that survived and how their lives were then impacted.
And I think by not doing those extra steps, and it makes it not really easier but in the sense of just saying, well, you know, that happened so many years ago, and it doesn’t make that important link from person to person. And I was really hoping that, in a way, from doing all the research that I did, trying to find books that were written about daily life in Japan that weren’t in Japanese was a challenge. But I found that a lot of libraries weeded out a lot of books on eBay, and I was able to find some that were translated from Japanese into English about life during the war. And I took a lot from what my mom said about her childhood and her experience, but I also read books about other comic bomb survivors so that I would have a better feel for overall what different ages, what some people might have gone through. And it was very eye-opening for me.
I learned a lot from my mom, not just about what she went through, but the kind of strength she had to go through, what she did, and to see a side of her I didn’t always see. She didn’t like getting emotional in public, and she didn’t cry very much or let us see her cry too much. But when she talked about what happened, it was like a switch went off, and she was like seeing it all over again at the age of twelve. And the way that she would cry and the way that she would talk, and it just, it’s something that will never leave me. It will always be something that makes me emotional because she was so willing to share that with me and then allow me to share that with other readers so that they wouldn’t go through it, so that their family, so that no family would ever deal with that again.
Bianca Schulze: I’m sort of feeling like my typical word that I would use here. It doesn’t feel like the right choice, but that’s a loss for words right now. Do you have, like, a highlight in terms of, I guess, the word I’m looking for is a very specific, meaningful moment in the story to you? And if you do, would you share it with us?
Kathleen Burkinshaw: Absolutely. I love the part about my mom just being with her Papa. They would spend nights after her bath upstairs on the veranda porch, and they would sit there and they would talk. And that’s when he would tell her stories. And being able to write a scene of that to show the love that they had for each other and how they would talk about various things happening with the war. And the first time my mother ever got an inkling that things weren’t going well because the propaganda was saying that Japan was doing well. But when she heard from her Papa, that wasn’t it. And that’s the moment when she realized that something could happen.
But I also felt that love because my mother would always start her stories with sitting on the veranda with her Papa, with the way that he would tell his story, with the way that he would hug her. With the way that she would feel his love because he was the only one, she let brush her hair because it was very unruly and hard to do. And he was willing to take his time and be gentle with that. And I really feel that that kind of shows the love that they had together.
And I also loved the scene of my mom in Machiko when they’re just her best friend, when they’re just listening to jazz, and they’re just talking. It was so hard for my mom to make friends, and so to find someone in Machiko that she could feel liked her just for her, and they could just enjoy themselves over regular things such as music to spend time with. I really enjoy putting those pieces in there because I know my mother treasures those.
Bianca Schulze: Do you have a quote or an excerpt that you could read?
Kathleen Burkinshaw: Sure. I would love to do that. Okay.
My nerves would not be subdued. It frightened me to think our country could be on the losing side of the war. Before I could stop myself, I asked Papa, what would happen to us if Japan lost the war? I will keep my family safe at all costs. Know this Joya, which was a term of endearment. You are my life, and I will give mine to save yours. Papa! Do not talk that way. I don’t want to be here if you are not. I felt tears building in my eyes and lean my head to rest on Papa’s shoulder, squeezing his hand. He squeezed back and said, that is how life is, Yuriko Chan. In our lives, we must experience both beginnings as well as ending. It is like the season changing after The Last Cherry Blossom falls.
I just picture my mom telling the stories, and I try to imagine her being that age and talking to him in that way. And I could always tell when she would mention her pop, of the way her face would change, that her eyes would light up, except for after the bombing, for that time period. But he had made such an imprint on her as far as trying to honor her culture, even when it was difficult to do. And being in Japan after the war was very difficult if you were from Nagasaki or Hiroshima. And so, she was able to have the strength to push through that as well. And she always said that it was because of her Papa and what she learned from him.
Bianca Schulze: Well, I read that The Last Cherry Blossom is a United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs resource for teachers and students. And since you mentioned that school visits and talking to students are something that does bring you joy, I have two questions. How does it make you feel that it’s on this list of resources for teachers and students? And then my second would be, do you have any tips for how your book could be used in the classroom setting?
Kathleen Burkinshaw: Oh, wonderful. Yes. Well, when I found out it was going to be put on that list, it was surreal. I honestly didn’t expect that. And it was just such an honor because then, after that, they invited me to speak at the United Nations, to speak with teachers, as well as in the bookstore about the book, about my mother’s story, to all the international press that was there. And I so missed my mom at that point. I so hoped that she could see how much her story did matter and the voices that it brings to all of the other Hibakusha and their families. It was an honor to be able to do that. And it’s a moment I’ll never, ever forget.
But also, there are various ways that you can use The Last Cherry Blossom. There are some classes that use it as part of their language arts, and I’ve also had some classes combine it with their language arts class as well as with social studies to be able to learn more about World War II in Japan.
I have a discussion guide that I can also give out to classes that they can use as well for the book, and they’ve used that a lot for civic issues as well if they want to start talking about not just nuclear disarmament or when you’re standing up for a cause. And I like to talk about how it doesn’t have to be a big thing. It can be something very small. It can just be even mentioning something about nuclear disarmament to someone who doesn’t know it, signing petitions, or just giving them some ideas that their voice also matters, which I feel is so important that students understand that and that they’re able to have that opportunity to use their voice. And so, between those three different areas, it’s always been wonderful to be able to share my mother’s story and to talk about the book or the book-writing process as well.
I love World Read-Aloud Day, and I was able to meet with several schools, and it is really a joy to see their interest in history in these events and how they can relate to today. And sadly, they do still relate today. There’s still threats in headlines daily. So, it means a lot to me that they would still be interested in that and welcoming me into that classroom for any of those ways of using the book.
Bianca Schulze: Which sort of school grades do you find the most receptive or most engaged in your visits?
Kathleen Burkinshaw: I’ve spoken from 6th through like 11th grade, and they’re all wonderful. But it surprised me that the middle schoolers they’re the ones that really take to the story. And I love going in if they’ve read the book ahead of time because then they can ask specific questions about how they felt when they read in the chapter what was happening and how it mattered to how they felt. It is as if they could be going through it. And I find that the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, it’s also the time when they’re usually learning that in school.
What I really found in them is it’s been a treasure to speak with them and to hear them when I first just started speaking with them before the book was out and how they’d come to me. And they would tell me to thank my mom for sharing that, and that was just so sweet. And when she received a thank you card from one of the classes that I had sent to her, she was just so touched because she felt for so long that her voice wouldn’t matter and to see her story. And in that way, she always said that I was honoring her Papa and her family. But it was her mostly in the beginning that I really wanted to honor, and she never saw it that way. But I do feel middle grade does a great job of that.
But then again, you know, all the grades I’ve spoken to, colleges as well, they’ve been wonderful. But the middle schoolers really seem to have a grasp on that, and they’re just starting to really form that kind of empathy for that. So, it’s a great time to start planting those seeds in their hearts.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. And I feel like they probably treasure you in terms of that you trust that they can handle this topic, right? That you’re trusting that they can take in this information and process it. I remember a few books from my elementary to middle school grades. And I think the reason why they’ve stayed with me is that the authors trusted me, that I could handle topics such as grief and obviously the catastrophic effects of war. So, I think they probably really appreciate that you trust that they can handle it.
Kathleen Burkinshaw: Thank you. I really hope so because when writing the book, there was also going back and forth about how I would write the scene of what my mother saw that day. And it was very important to me to be respectful of what she did see, to not sugarcoat it, not to make it gratuitous in any way for violence, but to show what actually happened. And as you said, that was basically a trust of sharing that and them receiving it in kind and being able to see it for what it was and how they could then take that and never want it to happen again, and to see how their views change.
As far as with the history of just saying it won the war, there’s so much more to it than that. And what’s involved with that, that doesn’t get spoken. There’s a lot of stories that aren’t told in history classes these days that really need to be spoken. And I’m honored that I’m able to try to get one type of story continued on in schools with those students. And I do appreciate that they do have that trust that we can discuss it together as well, and the fear or whatever feelings that might come up because of reading something like that. I really like to be in tune with that, to know how they’re feeling, and to gauge that and how I might make my talk and how we would discuss it together.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. Will there be a sequel?
Kathleen Burkinshaw: Yes, there will. I have been working on a sequel. It’ll take place about four years later. She has then moved to Tokyo with her new family member, which you know who that is. And she dealt a lot with what they call PTSD now. They didn’t have a name for it then; they didn’t talk about it then. They certainly didn’t think of it as the people experiencing war having it. It was more looking. They didn’t even recognize it for soldiers yet at that time. But she dealt with a lot of survivor guilt. She dealt with a lot of wondering, should I make friends again? Am I going to lose them? Can I make another friend? Can I make a go with this new family?
And she really had a lot of anger issues and just trying to figure out, well, what am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do with this prejudice that’s here for atomic bomb survivors, for being afraid of us? She’d tell people where she was originally born, and they would step away from her physically, thinking the radiation would just be pouring off of her. They didn’t understand at that time the feeling that made her feel that way, and that’s, in fact, why she would always say she was from Tokyo. That’s when it all started because she just felt it was easier to just not even mention it. I want to try to bring that out so that they can see how she went about deciding and where her strength really started to go through when she realized how she wanted to push through what she wanted to do and who the people were that really helped her to see that.
So, it’s been a long time because I had researched for quite a while to see—it’s the Allied occupation as well. So, I was trying to get a feel for all that information also, and my health issues get in the way a lot more than I would like the past couple of years. I’m hoping that, depending on how publishing comes out and everything, within two years, it should be out there. I’m hoping maybe a little bit sooner. I’m excited because I always hear from a lot of students that they want to know what happened afterward, and they love to hear what happened, how she ended up having me, and how she ended up in the US. And that kind of thing. So, I’m happy that there’s still interest to want to know what happens next.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, absolutely. Well, what impact, ultimately, do you hope that The Last Cherry Blossom has on its readers?
Kathleen Burkinshaw: I hope that aside from the idea that nuclear weapons should never be used again for any reason, I want them to also come away knowing after reading that the ones that we think don’t belong, the ones that we think are so different from us, or the ones that we may even consider our enemies, they’re not really so different from us after all. We all have hearts; we all feel emotions—that is going to be timeless throughout time. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to have that, and we’re going to need that emotional connection.
And I truly feel that, like the students in my daughter’s class, they weren’t cruel. They just didn’t know. They didn’t understand. They didn’t have that connection. So, I’m really hoping that aside from just being that historical piece, they also can see that in other issues, we’re not that different. And it’s so important to learn about other people’s customs, cultures, feelings, and thoughts and that ours all matters as well. They can coexist, which is also what I hope is what I bring, not just from the book but from my visits when I speak with students that my father was an American, he was in the service, but I still was able to find a way to make both sides coexistence and peace as well.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. Kathleen, thank you so much for your vulnerability today. Yeah, thank you for sharing your story, your mom’s story, with the listeners and me. The Last Cherry Blossom is a devastatingly beautiful read. To me, it’s an essential read, and I’m so grateful that you wrote it. So, thank you.
Kathleen Burkinshaw: Thank you so very much. That’s so very kind. I really appreciate the compassion that you have for my mother’s story and as well as all the books that you recommend and the books that you write. So, thank you.
Bianca Schulze: That means a lot, Kathleen; thank you for being on the show today.
Kathleen Burkinshaw: Thank you.
About the Book
Written by Kathleen Burkinshaw
Ages 11 + | 240 Pages
Publisher: Sky Pony | ISBN-13: 9781634506939
Publisher’s Book Summary: Yuriko is happy growing up in Hiroshima when it’s just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden from its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and air raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the atomic bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.
This is a story that offers young readers insight into how children lived during the war, while also introducing them to Japanese culture. Based on author Kathleen Burkinshaw’s mother’s first-hand experience surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, The Last Cherry Blossom hopes to warn readers of the immense damage nuclear war can bring, while reminding readers that the “enemy” in any war is often not so different from ourselves.
Buy the Book
Learn more about Kathleen Burkinshaw’s work at https://kathleenburkinshaw.com/.
- The driving force behind sharing this story of the Hiroshima atomic bomb with children and teens.
- Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy and how Kathleen’s diagnosis led to hearing about her mother’s experience living through the bombing.
- The writing process and an excerpt from The Last Cherry Blossom.
- Using The Last Cherry Blossom as a United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs Resource for Teachers and Students.
- School visits with Kathleen Burkinshaw.
- The promise of a sequel.
- Kathleen Burkinshaw’s hopes for the impact The Last Cherry Blossom will have on readers.
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