Throughout American history, some citizens have had more rights and privileges than others.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, fear and prejudice towards the Japanese reached a fever pitch. These attitudes extended to both citizens and non-citizens of Japanese descent living in the United States.
In 1942 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Under the terms of the Order, approximately 110,000 – 120,000 people of Japanese descent living in the US (of whom 70,000 were American citizens) were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps. The US justified its’ action by claiming that there was a danger of those of Japanese descent spying for the Japanese. However more than two thirds of those interned were American citizens and half of them were children. None had ever shown evidence of disloyalty.
The internees were transported to one of ten relocation centers in California, Utah, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming for up to 4 years, without due process of law or any factual basis, in bleak, remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Families were crammed into 20- by 25-foot rooms and forced to use communal bathrooms. No razors, scissors, or radios were allowed. Children attended War Relocation Authority schools.
In 1988, the U.S. Government conceded it had been wrong. Although restitution payments were authorized to the survivors, as President Reagan admitted:
“Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”
This book tells the story of a young Japanese-American internee nicknamed Shorty, who was trying to develop his own sense of honor even though they had been sent to a “camp” in the middle of nowhere behind a barbed-wire fence.
He was keenly aware that they were not free:
“Soldiers with guns made sure we stayed there, and the man in the tower saw everything we did, no matter where we were.”
His dad organized the kids to make a baseball field, and moms used mattress covers to make the boys uniforms. Shorty wasn’t that good, but on one of the last games of the year he got motivated:
“I glanced at the guardhouse behind the left field foul line and saw the man in the tower, leaning on the rail with the blinding sun glinting off his sunglasses. He was always watching, always staring. It suddenly made me mad. … I was gonna hit the ball past the guardhouse even if it killed me.”
He succeeds, and is a hero for awhile, but when the family is released from the camp, things got bad again. Even though the war was over, no one would talk to him because he was Japanese. When baseball season came, he felt inadequate all over again, hearing people in the crowd yelling “Jap.”
But he didn’t back down, and then, when he stepped up to the plate, he looked at the pitcher:
“The sun glinted off his glasses as he stood on the mound, like the guard in the tower.”
You can guess what happens next: Shorty belts that ball with a solid whack, and once again, gains not only self-respect but the respect of others, who see that being Japanese doesn’t mean he won’t be as brave or as talented as the rest of them.
The illustrations by Dom Lee are excellent, and were inspired in part by photographs taken by Ansel Adams at California’s Manzanar internment camp in 1943. Lee uses the bleak colors of the desert while the family is in the camp, adding color when they are finally back home.
Evaluation: This book has won a number of awards, and in my opinion, most definitely deserves them. It is important to remember that the focus of this story is on United States citizens. Thus, this is a highly recommended way to teach children critical thinking about political actions, and about the dire consequences of prejudice. Children will get a very good feel for what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes. Lee & Low provides an excellent guide for further discussion, here.
Winner, Parents’ Choice Award
Winner, Washington State Governor’s Writers Award
Best Multicultural Title, “Cuffies Award” – Publishers Weekly
“Editors’ Choice” – San Francisco Chronicle
“Choices,” Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC)
“Pick of the Lists,” – American Bookseller
Washington State Children’s Choice Award Finalist
Published by Lee & Low Books Inc., 1993