Fred Korematsu Speaks Up
Written by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi
Illustrated by Yutaka Houlette
Heyday, 2017, 103 pp.
2018 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award
Honor Book, Books for Older Children
Part of the “Fighting for Justice” series of biographies published by Heyday, Fred Korematsu Speaks Up reveals the depth and scope of anti-immigrant discrimination in a particularly bleak period of U.S. history — the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Just like many other Americans, Fred Korematsu enjoys hanging out with friends, listening to music, and playing tennis, but restaurants and barbershops refuse to serve him because of his Japanese heritage. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the bigotry and intolerance of Japanese-Americans intensifies. The United States government publishes propaganda posters and pamphlets vilifying Japanese-Americans, sends agents to search their homes and, ultimately, forcibly removes them. Wearing numbered tags and carrying a suitcase or two with their belongings, Japanese-Americans are herded onto crowded buses destined for the distant and stark internment camps. Pretending that he is Spanish-Hawaiian and changing his name, Fred initially evades internment but is soon caught, jailed, and subsequently imprisoned. His family and friends, desperate to demonstrate undying loyalty to the United States, shun convicted Fred who remains unafraid to speak out against injustice. Acting against his family’s wishes, he accepts the assistance of an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, but appeals to clear Fred of criminal wrongdoing take years. In the meantime, Japanese-Americans are released from camps and try to rebuild their lives. Most have lost their homes and jobs, and the Korematsu family, who had owned a thriving nursery in Oakland, returns to shattered greenhouses and their business in ruins.
Fred Korematsu’s case makes it all the way to the Supreme Court, where his lawyers seek to convince the judges that the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans is a violation of constitutional rights. But the majority of the Supreme Court justices believe internment has been a “military necessity.” Fred loses his appeal and lives with a criminal record that makes resuming his life exceptionally challenging. Decades later, and after he marries and has grown children, his case is reopened. In 1983, the Supreme Court agrees that the United States government had lied about the evidence it had against Japanese-Americans. At the age of 64, Fred wins his case and spends the rest of his life speaking out against injustice.
A unique fusion of free-verse poetry, Japanese-American artwork, and short narratives provide multiple ways to reflect upon the times and the dehumanizing effects of discrimination. Informational text conventions (table of contents, index, sidebar definitions, time-lines, maps, labels, captions, resources) make the text easier to navigate. Regular prompts such as, “Why do you think discrimination happens?” and “Have you ever been punished for something you didn’t do?” invite dialogue and deep questioning. Primary sources ensure that the story of Fred Korematsu and his family is told authentically from different perspectives. For example, photographs of Fred and his family in their flower nursery before Pearl Harbor and another where Fred receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton in 1998 convey a sense of personhood and worth. In contrast, photos of Japanese-American children tagged with numbers and huge lines of adults waiting to be fingerprinted at Tanforan accentuate their dehumanization during WWII. Propaganda cartoons and pamphlets reveal the mongering of fear and hatred by conflating Japanese nationals with Japanese Americans, referring to them both as “JAPS” who are depicted as evil with captions such as “THIS IS THE ENEMY.” The varied documentary sources also highlight Japanese-American horticultural talents and artistic contributions to the United States. The narrative brings to life brave, shy, young Fred as he lives in the internment camps and a no-nonsense, elderly Fred, as he challenges the U.S. government many years later. Anticipating that children recognize injustice and want to help break cycles of hatred and fear, the authors’ final touch is a resources section “for young activists.”
To expand understanding about anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States that started well before the attack on Pearl Harbor and existed well beyond WWII, this meticulously documented biography could be paired with Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson (2016), which received wide recognition and earned the 2017 Addams Award for Older Children. The biography, based on extensive interviews with Sachiko Yasui and various primary sources, presents the unspeakable truths of a young girl who survived the atomic bomb and her endless quest to fight discrimination and inspire peace. Exploration of the effects of war on innocent civilians, especially after bombing raids, are chronicled in both texts. Thirty Minutes over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot’s World War II Story by Marc Tyler Nobleman and illustrated by Melissa Iwai (2018) complements both biographies and acts as a springboard for discussions about surviving soldiers who live with the effects of their military actions. Japanese pilot, Nubuo Fujita, dropped bombs on the US mainland, just outside a small town in Oregon. After accepting an invitation to return to the town twenty years later, Nubuo, riddled with guilt over the war, apologized and embarked on a journey to promote peace. All three books advance Jane Addams’ conviction that achieving true peace means more than ending war; it requires that people work together to address oppressions and hierarchies of power and opportunity.
Laura Atkins has worked in the children’s publishing industry for over 25 years as a editor and author. Currently based in Berkeley, California, she spent years working as a lecturer and editor for the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature (NCRCL) at Roehampton University in London. She has co-authored (with Arisa White) a second title in the Fighting for Justice Series, Biddy Masons Speaks Up (2019) about the Los Angeles philanthropist, healer, and midwife. Stan Yogi is a Los Angeles-based author who, for 14 years, managed development programs for the ACLU of Northern California. He co-authored (with Elaine Elinson) Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California (2009). Yutak Houlette is a web designer and occasional illustrator who enjoys writing code to make interactive art. He is based in Oakland California where he works as a frontend engineer for Dropbox,
Chloë Hughes, Western Oregon University
WOW Review, Volume XII, Issue 2 by World of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work at https://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/review/xii-2/