Books about Japanese Internment Camps

The Migrant Detention Centers and the fact that so many children have been separated from their families is in our news daily. The whole thing sickens me, but I don’t want to go on a political rant. Rather, I wanted to make sure that books about another sad moment in America’s history are showcased, books for children about the Japanese Internment camps.

Last year, a beautiful book was written about librarian Clara Breed and the children she communicated with while they were interned. Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind, by Cynthia Grady and illustrated by Amiko Hirao, is a moving depiction of the kindness of one woman in a terrible and unjust situation. A public librarian in San Diego, a number of her patrons were Japanese. When they had to leave, she wound up giving a number of them pre addressed and stamped postcards so that they could communicate with her and let her know where they were. But it didn’t stop there. When she learned that they were in Arcadia, which is near Pasadena, she sent them books and even visited. She gave them hope. This book is really lovely with examples of the letters scattered throughout the pages helping tell the story.

Cynthia Grady was not the first to write about Clara Breed. In a book aimed at the 12+ market, Joanne Oppenheim relates the stories of  these children in Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese Incarceration during World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference. The stories she tells are created from letters Breed had saved, recollections, and interviews with the now grown-up children. Oppenheim’s book was in advance review copy stage when Grady was writing her book and Oppenheim is acknowledged in Grady’s book.

Another wonderful book for the middle grade set (8-12) is Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban. This is the story of ten-year-old Manami whose family is sent to an internment camp in 1942. This book focuses on the fear and confusion that Manami faces with a lot of heart. This is a great gateway for the 8-12 age group to start to learn about what happened.

Recently, I happened to switch onto NPR in time to catch the tiniest bit of an interview with George Takei on his newest book, They Called Us Enemy, which I then immediately pre-ordered. He has written a graphic novel for older readers about his personal experiences in an internment camp. This book is already getting starred reviews from places like School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. Takei urges young readers to look at the parallels with what happened then versus what is happening now. My copy of this book arrived yesterday, release day, and I am looking forward to reading Takei’s account.

Another graphic novel that tackles the subject of the internment camps is Gaijin: American Prisoner of War, by Matt Faulkner. Gaijin is the Japanese word for outsider or foreigner. That is what 13-year-old Koji Miyamoto is called when he finds himself interned at the Alameda Downs Assembly Center. He is considered an outsider because while his father is Japanese, his mother is white. Kirkus reviews wrote, “Inspired by the true story of Faulkner’s great-aunt, the graphic novel features gouache illustrations that deftly capture Koji’s anger and frustration when he’s rejected by his peers and treated as an “enemy alien” despite his citizenship.”

Sylvia and Aki, by Winifred Conklin, gives young readers insight not only to the internment camps, but to the struggle of Mexican-Americans to end segregation in their schools and get proper treatment. This book is actually based on the true stories of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu. Aki’s family is sent to an internment camp in Arizona and they rent their family farm to Sylvia Mendez’s family. When the Mendez family goes to enroll their children in the local school, the one that Aki had attended, but instead sent to a “Mexican” school, the stage is set for the true legal battle Mendez vs. Westminster School District. I first learned of the Mendez story in Separate is Not Equal and think that putting these two stories together is exceptionally powerful. The two girls wound up writing letters to each other and remain friends today.

Amy Lee-Tai tells a story inspired by her mother’s family in A Place Where Sunflowers Grow. This book shows daily life in the internment camps – dry, desert life, guards with guns watch their every move, no privacy in the bathrooms, and meals in a loud mess hall. But it also shows that the Japanese Americans living there did the best that they could to bring light into their lives by planting sunflowers and having art classes. This book called to me due to similarities with Terezin, the “model” concentration camp. After liberation, people found poems and drawings that the Jews had hidden. One poem, which became a song as well as a play, was “The Last Butterfly.” The internment camps were not as bad as the concentration camps, but it was a grave injustice. A Place Where Sunflowers Grow shows that even in those dark hours, we strive to find the light.

Just like the sunflowers, some turned to things like baseball to pass the time and bring some routine and fun back. Baseball Saved Us, by Ken Mochizuki, tells the story of a young boy in the camps who found hope in baseball. Like Sunflower, this book shows readers life inside a camp. Hot, dusty, cramped, boring, and bleak. They decided to build a baseball field and it helped make a community. It also gave the narrator a goal – to do better, as he wasn’t a great baseball player. What others stories don’t show is what life was like AFTER life in the camps. Once out, people were still afraid of Japanese Americans and they were not treated particularly well. But again, for this young boy, his days of practicing baseball at the camp saved his life, and as artistically represented in the final page, brought hope and color to his world.

There are many other books out there that should be celebrated and read. America made a huge mistake during WWII. Let’s not do that again.

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