Youth Lit Does it Better: Historical Novels about Japanese Internment

Hey everyone, it’s Sarah!

This past month, one of my book clubs read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, which I will review below. Through the discussion, several members talked about the fact that they had no idea Japanese internment was part of our history. During World War II, the United States government took away the rights and possessions from people of Japanese descent. It didn’t matter if the person had been born and raised in America, if there were any “ties” to being Japanese, the person was rounded up and put into an internment camp. It is important that readers find their way to these stories because those who do not learn from their history are bound to repeat it.

After reading this adult lit book about this time in history, I couldn’t believe how much better the youth books covered the topic. Here are several of my most recommended youth fiction books that cover this time in our history. I will also include a few additional resources at the bottom.

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Title: Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Author: Jamie Ford

Summary:

Henry, a Chinese American, was growing up in California during World War II. Henry was never American or Chinese enough for his American classmates and his oppressive father. Each day, Henry wore a button proclaiming his Chinese identity, because his father hated the Japanese as much as the Americans. Henry was a scholarship student at school and he was required to work in the kitchens as part of this status. While there, he met Keiko, a Japanese American student, who made him question the treatment of Japanese Americans. These difficult experiences growing up and Keiko’s eventual journey into the internment camps, impacted Henry into his adult life. Now that Henry’s wife has passed and his son is getting married, Henry is working through the tough times of his childhood.

Review:

The concept of this book was more interesting than the execution. To ensure the ages matched up, the book took place at odd years in time, specifically 1986. There were references to computer research that would have been impossible at the time. Settings could have been better developed. The characters weren’t as compelling as I would have hoped. The topic this book addresses is important, but the execution could have been better.

Youth Booklist: Historical Novels about Japanese Internment

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Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

Manami and her family live on a small island in the Pacific, when the bombing of WWII occurs. All Japanese families are gathered and taken to interment camps, which are like prisons. Manami and her family are taken to an interment camp in California. Before leaving, she tries to take the family dog, but American soldiers do not allow her to do this. After being torn from her home and away from a family member (dog), Manami’s no longer speaks. As things become terribly difficult and her family hopes for reprieve soon, Manami watches in overwhelming sorrow.

This book has beautiful writing and the character is presented beautifully. The writing was poetic and the main character was beautiful.

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They Called Us Enemy by George Takei

George Takei, famous for his role in Star Trek and humanitarian efforts, relates his family’s experiences during World War II in America, as a Japanese American. No matter how this time is history is packaged up with a pretty bow, Takei provides the emotional journey and horror that his family experienced. He pushes readers to challenge inhumane treatment of groups of people and shines a spotlight on the areas that Americans can better.

The War Outside by Monica Hesse

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Haruko’s brother is fighting overseas for America, but because the government has determined her family is Japanese sympathizers, they are relocated to the camp. It is baffling that her patriotic family, with a member in the army, could ever be considered an enemy of the country. Haruko’s parents attempt to make the best of the situation, simply because they don’t want any violence enacted against them. Haruko is mad and wants answers, especially because she knows that her father is hiding an important secret. At “school” Haruko becomes even more frustrated when she meets Margot, a girl from the German side of the camp. They strike up an unlikely friendship, perhaps something more, but they must keep it secret or they will become targets of both those running the camp and those in the camp with them.

Margot’s father was a lovely man, who loved to learn and teach. However, with her mother’s current difficult pregnancy and living in the camp, Margot’s father feels inadequate, which leads him to make upsetting decisions. Margot connects with Haruko, as they are both trying to find a way to survive.

I liked the addition of the queer themes, which something you typically do not see in historical fiction. It was a well-developed decent into unacceptable choices and truly explorers how people could get to the bad places they end up. Overall this was a solid historical novel.

Further Resources:

Lesson Plans:

Library of Congress- https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/japanese-american-internment-fear-itself/

The New York Times- https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/07/learning/lesson-plans/teaching-japanese-american-internment-using-primary-resources.html

More Information:

Teaching Tolerance: https://www.tolerance.org/learning-plan/japanese-internment-6

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