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Margi Preus returns to 'kid lit' with Peace Bell book

It's a story that spans five decades, one World War and approximately 6,047 miles. Margi Preus' second children's book in a decade tackles the amazing true story of Duluth's prized Ohara Peace Bell.

It's a story that spans five decades, one World War and approximately 6,047 miles. Margi Preus' second children's book in a decade tackles the amazing true story of Duluth's prized Ohara Peace Bell.

But before we get into the long-in-the-works "The Peace Bell," a quick refresher course on the bell is probably in order: During World War II, the Japanese city of Ohara (now Isumi) "donated" its temple bell to the country's scrap drive -- but, for whatever reason, it was never melted down. Sailors on the USS Duluth found it and gave it to their ship's namesake as a war trophy, where it was on display in City Hall until the early '50s. That's when a Japanese university dean persuaded Duluth Mayor George Johnson to give it back to its rightful owners. In return, Japanese craftsmen made a replica for the city of Duluth, which has been in Enger Park since 1994. (To celebrate this unique connection, Duluth and Ohara-Isumi also became sister cities in the early '90s.)

Preus' picture book tells the story of the bell from the point of view of a grandmother in Ohara who lived through World War II.

"She remembers hearing the bell as a child, and then the bell is given away, it's donated for the scrap metal drive," said the Duluth author and illustrator. "Donated is a generous word -- they were pretty much required to sacrifice their temple bells. They just kind of had to give them up; they didn't want to, because they were sacred and very meaningful.

"The whole thing is kind of a flashback, because the grandmother is telling the children this. Then, at the very end, the children -- it's her granddaughter and then her American friend, who's visiting from Duluth -- go see the bell, ring it and hear the sound."

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Preus doesn't skimp on any details of life during war, but, since it is a children's picture book, some things aren't as obvious.

"They say goodbye to the soldiers, including her father -- but that's kind of subtle," the Fergus Falls native and founding member of the Colder By The Lake comedy troupe said. "You have to read the illustrations to get that, because it isn't stated in the story. In the illustration, you see her father going away as a soldier. And then you never see him again."

Things pick up after the war: the Japanese woman gets married, starts a family, etc. That's when the bell, which meant so much to her village when she was growing up, makes its triumphant return.

"It comes back and there's a big parade and a celebration and speeches and music and singing," Preus said, continuing her synopsis. "Then she rings it and, when she rings it, she remembers that feeling she had as a child for the bell. It kind of talks about ringing away the sorrow of the war, and ringing kind of the feeling of new friendships to come and hope for peace in hearts of people all over the world."

Transcending translation

Preus got the idea for "The Peace Bell" from her (then) 13-year-old son Misha, who suggested she write it after the two of them visited Ohara on one of the annual student exchange program outings.

"He was one of the students who went with the delegation, and I went with and chaperoned," she said. "My older son had gone two years before that, when he was 13, and had really liked it. He enjoyed it so much, and Misha, of course, wanted to do everything his older brother did. ... He's now a sophomore in college, so that gives you some indication of how long it can take the whole picture book [process] to go from beginning to end."

She was introduced to the book's illustrator, Hideko Takahashi, by her publisher.

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"I only said I hoped that the illustrator would be Japanese, because I thought it would be a good way to represent the two cultures that are connected to the story," Preus said. "And she is, she's Japanese, but she lives in Seattle now. Her family, though, still lives in Japan. She went back to Japan, she went to Ohara, she researched the story herself as well, and talked to her family about living through the war. So she really threw herself into it."

Because of the sensitive nature of the book, Preus said there was a little "dialogue" back and forth between her and Takahashi.

"She had some very strong feelings about a lot of things, because, of course, this was a very, very traumatic experience for her family, and a very life-changing event for the Japanese people ... it became a very intense experience for her to do these illustrations," the author said. "She wanted to know what happened to the father. I said, 'You know, I tried to put that into the text, and it just spun off -- it went in another direction.' Here I am trying to tell a story of the bell in 1,000 words, and now I've got this dad. But I said, 'I really think you can tell his story.'"

Conciseness is key

Going back to the 1,000-word target of picture books, Preus said composing "The Peace Bell" was quite a feat.

"Picture books are one of those things where a lot of people think that it doesn't look very hard, because there are not that many words ... and it seems like anybody could do that," she said. "But it's kind of like writing poetry, in the sense that you have to condense a lot of meaning and a lot of emotion and a lot of story into very, very few words."

In addition to judiciously cutting the fat, Preus said there are other obstacles.

"You have to think about, How is it going to work with the illustrations? What part is the illustration going to tell, and what part is the text going to tell? That's one of the things I like about teaching children's literature: looking at how text and illustrations work together to create meaning," said Preus, who teaches a children's literature course at the College of St. Scholastica. "As adults, we get so we're that not very good at reading pictures anymore. Kids who don't read yet are much better at it. They know how to look at a picture and make a story or make meaning out of it."

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NEWS TO USE
Margi Preus will sign copies of "The Peace Bell" from noon to 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, at Northern Lights Books & Gifts. Visit www.margipreus.com for more information on the book or if you are interested in having Preus visit your school.

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