The Phone Booth in Mr Hirota's Garden by Heather Smith

Values: Empathy, Compassion, Community, Courage.

This book holds a special place for me, as I have just finished writing an essay on how it explores grief and healing for one of my MA modules. I have studied it and studied it over two months and still love it just as much as when I first read it. I think that in itself speaks volumes!

The book is set in Japan just before, and in the aftermath of, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused over 18,000 people to lose their lives. It's protagonist is Makio - a child who loses his father and much of his community in the tsunami and it follows his grieving and healing processes. Interestingly, the phone booth that is referred to is a real phone box ('the wind phone') that was made by one man to help his cope with the loss of his cousin by 'speaking' to him through the wind. This was prior to the tsunami, and since then it has drawn many locals and tourists who use the phone to communicate with those they have lost.

In the story, Makio loses not only his father, but his voice in the tsunami. The reader witnesses his period of grief as being lonely and confused. Makio watches people using the phone booth (we can infer his mother also uses it from some of the speech) and eventually tries himself. It is this that helps Makio regain use of his voice and begin to heal, by telling his father all about his day-to-day life down the phone.

This is a really emotive book for both adults and children, and I think one of the most obvious Values that can be discussed as a result of reading it is empathy. The reader cannot help but be moved by the devastation the tsunami causes and this is portrayed poignantly through both Heather Smith's words ("Everybody lost somebody the day the wave came") and also through Rachel Wada's illustrations. Makio appearing alone and isolated on several of the pages after this enhance our feelings towards him and encourage us to empathise with what he might be going through.

If a child in your school/class has lost a parent, you may like to think about how or whether you use this book. It might open up really insightful conversations about how they are feeling. It might give others the opportunity to understand this better. For those children who have never experienced loss or grief, it is equally a powerful way of exploring this complex emotion. Discussing the difference between sympathy and empathy can also be done sensitively using this book.

Another Value that you can think about with children is compassion. Why was the real phone booth built? How has it helped many people since 2010? What could you do that might support someone going through a difficult time? How did people in the book support Makio? (We don't see too much of this, but we do see Mr Hirota building his phone booth and we see others speaking into it.) How do you think it felt for Makio to continue living near the ocean after the tsunami? Do you think he might see it differently at the start of the book compared to the end of the book?

I would also explore the Value of community. It could be a good way to look at what a community means. How do they support each other? What happens when a community is destroyed? How did the real coastal towns in Japan cope with the aftermath of the tsunami? Is the community the buildings and the place or is it the people? How do you know? These are questions that might lend themselves to UKS2 children, but I think you will get more out of this book if you look at it with older children anyway.

Lastly, I think there is great scope for discussing the meaning of courage with the children when you read this book. Makio loses so much around him in the tsunami - including his voice. He has to learn to trust the ocean again and it is right at the end of the book that we see him near the water, and thinking about how he used to greet it every day. He also has the courage to go by himself to the phone booth and try to talk to his father. He slowly builds confidence with this and learns to tell his dad all about his school and every day life including how his mother is. Courage is quite an abstract concept to lots of children in my experience. They tend to associate it with things like 'standing up to bullies'. Not a lot of children think about courage as a personal journey and this book is perfect for illustrating this meaning of courage.

There are many more Values you could easily link to this book, of course. It depends on your class/children and what you want to get out of it. But I think this book, largely unknown in the UK, is a wonderful way of looking at grief and healing in a gentle and accessible manner. It's references to Japan are subtle but also crucial to the story as it is based on a real event.

If you would like a copy of the book, try ordering from an independent bookseller - there are lots around and they are all struggling whilst doors are closed due to Covid! You can find out more about the author and her inspiration for writing the book here and the illustrator here.

If you would like to look at books on the blog with the same Values, follow the hashtags: