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In her third verse novel, Japan-based writer Holly Thompson tackles the topical issue of bullying. Her protagonist, likable American sixth-grader Jason Parker, struggles to fit in at his Japanese elementary school after moving from America to a seaside community on the Shonan coast in Kanagawa Prefecture. However, things go from challenging to overwhelming when he is assigned to sit with the cattiest girls and most pugnacious boys in his class.

Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth, by Holly Thompson, Illustrated by Matt Huynh.
352 pages
HENRY HOLT AND CO., Fiction.

The teacher turns a blind eye as the level of surreptitious bullying escalates, and Jason has to rely on his own wits and inner strength to get by, drawing on his aikido training for inspiration. His well-meaning but rather clueless parents are of little practical help — they’re too wrapped up in their busy teaching careers and trying to save enough money to send Jason to an international school.

Jason realizes that employing American-style justice will only exacerbate the situation and, in the end, his strongest ally turns out to be his plucky younger sister.

An eclectic cast of supporting characters, some of whom are misfits in their own way, add interest to the story. The author does a laudable job of presenting a warts-and-all view of Japan’s contemporary classroom culture and kids teetering on the brink of adolescence. Despite the heavy underlying themes, Thompson adds dollops of humor in the right measure and the fast-paced plot will have her young audience reading furiously right up until the satisfying and realistic conclusion.

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