When the tsunami destroyed Makio's village, Makio lost his father . . . and his voice. The entire village is silenced by grief, and the young child's anger at the ocean grows. Then one day his neighbor, Mr. Hirota, begins a mysterious project—building a phone booth in his garden. At first Makio is puzzled; the phone isn't connected to anything. It just sits there, unable to ring. But as more and more villagers are drawn to the phone booth, its purpose becomes clear to Makio: the disconnected phone is connecting people to their lost loved ones. Makio calls to the sea to return what it has taken from him and ultimately finds his voice and solace in a phone that carries words on the wind.
The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota's Garden is inspired by the true story of the wind phone in Otsuchi, Japan, which was created by artist Itaru Sasaki. He built the phone booth so he could speak to his cousin who had passed, saying, "My thoughts couldn't be relayed over a regular phone line, I wanted them to be carried on the wind." The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 destroyed the town of Otsuchi, claiming 10 percent of the population. Residents of Otsuchi and pilgrims from other affected communities have been traveling to the wind phone since the tsunami.
In a story based on a garden telephone booth and the 2011 tsunami that hit Japan, Smith (The Agony of Bun O'Keefe) imagines a Japanese boy named Makio and his neighbor, Mr. Hirota. Each morning, the two vie to spot Makio's fisherman father as he unloads the day's catch, and Mr. Hirota's daughter, who helps to clean the fish ("It was one of their favorite games"). But Makio's father and Mr. Hirota's daughter are both lost in a giant wave Wada illustrates with strongly composed watercolor spreads whose masses of black shadow convey foreboding and sorrow and Makio, grief-stricken, stops speaking. Mr. Hirota builds a white phone booth in his garden, the telephone "connected to nowhere." Makio watches him enter it to talk to his dead daughter, and other villagers begin visiting it, too. After screaming at the ocean, which offers only its customary response, Makio decides to try the phone booth himself. "Guess what? I did really well on my math test. ...I miss you, Dad." Speaking directly to his departed family about ordinary events gives Makio his voice back and helps him traverse grief. An affecting, well-rendered resource for talking about catastrophes and grief both personal and communal. Ages 6 8.