New Voice: Winifred Conkling on Sylvia & Aki

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Winifred Conkling is the first-time author of Sylvia & Aki (Tricycle Press, 2011). From the promotional copy: 

Sylvia never expected to be at the center of a landmark legal battle. All she wanted was to enroll in school.

Aki never expected to be relocated to a Japanese internment camp in the Arizona desert. All she wanted was to stay on her family farm and finish the school year.

The two girls certainly never expected to know each other, until their lives intersected in Southern California during a time when their country changed forever.

Here is the remarkable story based on true events of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, two ordinary girls living in extraordinary times. When Sylvia and her brothers are not allowed to register at the same school Aki attended – instead, they are sent to a “Mexican school” – the stage is set for Sylvia’s father to challenge in court the separation of races in California’s schools. 

Ultimately, Mendez vs. Westminster School District led to the desegregation of California schools and helped build the case that would end school segregation nationally.

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first – character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

As soon as I heard about Sylvia Mendez, I knew I wanted to write about her. I actually had a lightning-bolt moment: I was listening to NPR on the car radio when I heard a report about the 50th anniversary of the Brown. v. Board of Education lawsuit that desegregated the public schools.

The story mentioned a discrimination case that happened years before the Brown case. It involved a nine-year-old Mexican-American girl who wasn’t allowed to go to the “white” school near her home. The girl’s father filed a lawsuit, and Thurgood Marshall — the famous civil rights attorney – wrote a supporting brief that included the argument he would use seven years later in the Brown case.

Without Sylvia Mendez and her lawsuit, the landmark Brown case wouldn’t have happened the way it did. I was so fascinated by the NPR report that I actually pulled my car over on the side of the road and started taking notes. Seriously.

I started reading everything I could about Sylvia Mendez and the lawsuit her father filed against the school system in Orange County, California. I read thousands of pages of transcripts of the trial. To some people that might sound boring, but I found it fascinating.

Today it’s hard to imagine a Superintendent of Schools calling a group of children “inferior” in their ability to learn and saying they have “generally dirty hands, face, neck, and ears,” but that’s what happened. I cringed when I imagined Sylvia, an impressionable third-grade girl, sitting in a courtroom and listening to her school superintendent testify under oath that he considered her inferior to the white students. I couldn’t believe the cruelty of the testimony.

I wanted my readers to share my outrage, so I used the actual court transcripts as the basis of the dialogue in the court scene in Sylvia & Aki. I didn’t want to rewrite or reinterpret history. Instead, I let the Superintendent speak for himself, which I think provides a much more powerful sense of the prejudices and discrimination experienced by Mexican-Americans in southern California, 1945.

I knew the segregation lawsuit would be the backbone of the story, but as I did my research, I became emotionally involved in a second, equally compelling story that happened at the same time. In the early 1940s, Japanese families in southern California were removed from their homes and farms and forced into internment camps for the duration of World War II.

Sylvia’s story began in 1941 when she moved to a farm in Westminster, California, and was told she had to go to a “Mexican school.” But another young girl – a Japanese girl named Aki – had lived on that farm until she was forced to move to Poston, an internment camp. Here was a second young girl who was also subjected to heartbreaking discrimination. In addition to leaving her home, Aki was separated from her father for years because he was sent to a different internment camp.

Ultimately, I realized that Sylvia and Aki both had important stores to share. Their life journeys were intertwined, and I didn’t think I could tell one story without including the other.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

About Winifred

Since my book is based on actual events, the first thing I did was find Sylvia and Aki, who were now in their seventies, and make sure they were comfortable with me telling their stories.

I found them both in southern California, not too far from the 40-acre asparagus farm where my book takes place.

I spoke with the women on the phone several times, and then I went to California to interview them in person. By that time, I had fallen in love with their story and I just wanted to tell it the best way I knew how.

I struggled with the format for the book. I wrote it as nonfiction, then I rewrote it as fiction. I wrote it in first-person, then rewrote it in third-person. I wrote it using a three-part format – Sylvia’s story, Aki’s story, then the summer with the girls together – then I rewrote it in alternating points of view on a single timeline. The story is complicated in that there are distinct narrative threads, but the two story lines share a lot of common themes, and, in the end, the girls did spend time together and become friends in the summer of 1945.

My ultimate goal was to tell the story in a way that would make it most accessible to young readers. The story was true, but I wanted it to read like a novel so that young readers would identify with Sylvia and Aki as children, not historical figures.

At first I worried that choosing a fictional approach might undermine the truth of the story, but I ultimately decided that the Truth – capital “T”, the emotional truth – of what happened could best be conveyed in fiction.

I didn’t want to misrepresent any of the events, so I had both Sylvia and Aki review the text to make sure it was accurate. When they both told me I got it right, then I knew I had chosen the correct approach.

Cynsational Notes

See teachers guide for Sylvia & Aki.

8 thoughts on “New Voice: Winifred Conkling on Sylvia & Aki

  1. Wow- that is something I didn't realize took place, we hear so much about Brown vs. Board and how that impacted desegregation in schools, but so little is mentioned about this case. I look forward to reading it:)

  2. I'm eager to read SYLVIA & AKI! Especially since the segregation of Mexican-Americans plays a role in the novel I'm working on at the moment.

    What stunned me most in reading about the logistics of the segregation of Mexican-American students was that they were essential forced out of school by sixth grade. Enormously overcrowded classrooms made learning difficult, putting the students further behind their white peers. On top of that, the school districts in Texas often divided elementary grades into two years ("lower first," "upper first") in "Mexican" schools, causing students to be told that they were "too old" for the grade they should have been able to join in the (white) middle school.

    In Houston in the 30s, for example, only a handful of Mexican-Americans (usually lighter skinned) graduated from high school at all despite a significant Hispanic population in the area. They faced discrimination in white schools, and there was no "Mexican" public high school as an option.

    I also discovered that, unlike African-Americans, whose teachers–also African-American–were usually committed to helping students use education to combat their circumstances, Mexican-American children were almost invariably taught by white teachers, some of whom found theirs an "undesirable" placement and were quick to underestimate the abilities of their students.

  3. This is so interesting! Cynthia – thanks so much for highlighting this book on your blog. Winifred – I'm looking forward to reading SYLVIA & AKI. I'm so touched that you were able to track down the women and talk with them.

  4. I reviewed Sylvia and Aki a while ago, really enjoyed to book! I'm wondering if there was much written material to document the the girl's story? Would you ever publish the nonfiction that you wrote?

  5. What an important story to tell, and I can easily see why you fell in love with it and the need to share it. It's always great to celebrate the success of a first time author. Congratulations, Winifred.

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