Beate Sirota Gordon was a Jewish woman born in Vienna in 1923. The daughter of a concert pianist, she spent most of her childhood in Japan, where she grew to love the people but also felt intense frustration at the country’s oppression of women. Gordon is a hero unfamiliar to most American readers who now have the opportunity to learn about her extraordinary life in an elegantly designed children’s book. Jeff Gottesfeld chronicles Gordon’s early life immersed in a foreign culture, her escape to the United States as war approached, and her eventual reunion with her parents who had remained in Japan and survived the deprivations of war. Gottesfeld’s dramatic text and Sheilla Witanto’s powerful illustrations capture the intensity of Gordon’s experiences, which compelled her to fight for women’s equality in post-war Japan.
Like many European Jews of their generation, Gordon’s family was uprooted and forced to search for refuge. Her father was born in Ukraine, moved to Vienna to escape antisemitic persecution, and settled in Japan to become a professor of music. When Japan and Germany allied as the Axis powers, the family’s safety was threatened and Gordon immigrated to the U.S. where she attended Mills College in California. After the war ended, her unusual status as an American fluent in Japanese led to her return to Japan with the U.S. occupying armed forces. Treated with skepticism and sometimes hostility as a woman involved in crafting Japan’s new constitution, she became determined to ensure that women’s rights were included in that document. Gottesfeld traces Gordon’s ideals throughout her formative years as she observed the objectification of girls and women in pre-war Japan and was later encouraged by the progressive feminist culture at her college. The author reports Gordon’s feelings of conflict when the U.S. enters the war against Japan: “Beate’s heart was torn. She hated Japan’s military but loved its people.” She witnesses the internment of loyal Japanese Americans with despair. Every phrase of the text, some factual and others employing metaphor, advance the story of Gordon’s conviction in her urgent quest for justice.
The book’s sophisticated design and illustrations combine elements of Japanese and western culture. On some pages, proverbs appear in both Japanese (a combination of Chinese characters and the phonetic script derived from them) and English transliteration. The effect is a sense of authenticity and a respect for Gordon’s uncompromising stance in supporting Japanese women in their struggle for equality. Witanto’s pictures are striking, expressing both Gordon’s empathy and her obstinate insistence on standing up to male power. One two-page spread shows an oversized image of Gordon’s face, upper body, and clasped hands as she confronts Japanese delegates: “Beate fixed her eyes on them. Not on the floor.” Another pair of images contrast Gordon standing in a snowstorm, wrapped in a grey western coat and red scarf, with a Japanese woman, child, and infant huddled together under bright red parasols. The picture acknowledges both the differences between Gordon and the woman as well as the bond of seeking shelter. Both the Japanese and American men in the book are locked in conflict, their angry and argumentative faces, a contrast to the women’s complex mixture of stoicism and vulnerability. The final picture is of women’s hands exchanging cherry blossoms, while an earlier counterpart image commemorates a male handshake sealing the agreement over women’s rights. Gordon’s life, a testimony to this complementary vision of change, is finally available to picture book readers.
No Steps Behind is highly recommended and includes an illuminating “Author’s Note,” references, a bibliography, and a timeline.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.