Review: The Lost Ryū

The Lost Ryū

by Emi Watanabe Cohen

Levine Querido, 2022

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Heidi Rabinowitz

This debut novel from a talented young Jewish/Japanese     author takes place in Japan twenty years after the end of WWII. Kohei's mother and grandfather both continue to suffer from their wartime experiences, and the boy believes that Ojiisan's grief may be tied to the disappearance of the large ryū or Japanese dragons. Small ryū, reminiscent of the daemons in the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, are companions and confidants to humans. When a Japanese-American Jewish girl, Isolde, moves into the building along with her small Western dragon, she and Kohei set out on a quest to help Ojiisan reconnect with life.

The text is beautifully written, with magical elements effortlessly woven into a realistic narrative. Transliterated Japanese language is incorporated in a way that adds to the atmosphere, and is understandable through context. The emotions are authentic and the adventure is enthralling. The book sensitively explores generational trauma, the difficulty of living between two cultures, and the importance of each person's story. 

While the Jewish content is minimal, Isolde is an important character. We learn that her dragon speaks Yiddish. She brings a unique perspective, explaining that all of her grandparents died in camps: her father's parents in European concentration camps and her mother's parents in Japanese internment camps in the US. 

A heartening conversation occurs near the end of the story when Kohei tells Isolde "I promise to be your ally.... I promise to take your battles seriously. Even if they're different from mine. I promise I'll be there, by your side." While this promise is specific to their friendship, it's also a beautiful moment of role modeling for readers. Coming from non-Jewish Kohei to Jewish Isolde, it feels to this reviewer as though the words carry a larger significance.

While the level of Jewish representation may not qualify this title for Sydney Taylor Book Award recognition, the uniqueness of that representation is fascinating and very welcome. Highly recommended for middle grade audiences of all backgrounds.

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Reviewer Heidi Rabinowitz is one of the co-admins of The Sydney Taylor Shmooze, along with Susan Kusel and Chava Pinchuck. She hosts The Book of Life Podcast: A Show About Jewish Kidlit (Mostly) at Heidi is Past President of the Association of Jewish Libraries, and Library Director at Congregation B'nai Israel of Boca Raton, Florida.