Kid Lit Review of “Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind” by Cynthia Grady

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 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.

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 5.24.11 AM

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.

This book tells the story of Clara Estelle Breed, the children’s librarian at the East Branch of the San Diego County Library, which served many Japanese American families. Miss Breed got to know many of these children, and went to the train station to see them off when they were being relocated. She took a bagful of books to give them, as well as stamped, addressed postcards. “‘Write to us,’ Miss Breed said. ‘We’ll want to know where you are.’”

Over the next three years until the war ended, Miss Breed received many postcards from approximately thirty children. At first, they were postmarked from Arcadia, California. She wrote the kids back every week, and sent them boxes of books and more stamped postcards. She also wrote articles for magazines and letters to authorities about the mistreatment of Japanese Americans.

The author used excerpts from the postcards received by Miss Breed, incorporating them into the book. For example, One said:

“Dear Miss Breed,
I was overwhelmed with joy to see the books when the postman opened the package for inspection. Thank you, Miss Breed, Thank you!
Very sincerely yours,
Louise Ogawa”

Miss Breed even took a train to Arcadia and visited the children. But then they were transferred to a prison camp in Poston, Arizona. Miss Breed did not stop trying to lift their spirits however. As the author reports:

“Miss Breed sent them seeds for planting, thread for sewing, and soap for washing. She sent pipe cleaners, crepe paper, pencils, and glue for making crafts.”

Two young evacuees in Poston, Arizona

The children wrote her back about the crafts they made, the books they were reading, and also about how they were doing and feeling.

In the Author’s Note, we learn that when Miss Breed packed to move to a retirement home, she found the box she had kept of more than 250 letters and postcards she had received during the war. She gave them to Elizabeth Kikuchi Yamada, one of the former children who had corresponded with her. The author reports:

“In 1991 Clara Breed was the honored guest at a reunion for Japanese Americans who had been imprisoned in Poston, Arizona. More than seven hundred people gave her a standing ovation for her kindness, friendship, love, and courage during the war.”

After the Author’s Note, there is a list of notable dates in Clara Breed’s life, a selected history of Japanese people in the United States, source notes, a selected bibliography, photo credits, and suggestions for further reading.

Evacuees in Poston,Arizona, photo by Francis Stewart, 1942

The muted colored-pencil illustrations by Amiko Hirao are lovely, and there are a number of actual photographs included on the end papers.

Evaluation: This book presents an important historical moment from a unique perspective, providing emotion and heart. The connection to a children’s librarian may resonate with young readers, and the reproduction of words from actual postcards add a touching realistic element to the story. There is also a wonderful message, about how one person can provide compassion and relief even when otherwise powerless against larger forces. And with any luck at all, it may help readers understand the injustice and cruelty of locking up children, a practice which is not restricted to the past.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Charlesbridge, 2018

Librarian Clara Breed

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4 Responses to Kid Lit Review of “Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind” by Cynthia Grady

  1. mae says:

    Sometimes a hero does show up when our country doesn’t live up to its standards. Your review brings tears to my eyes. How could this have happened? Why weren’t there more heroic acts by ordinary people like this?

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

    • Think about how many of us would want to stop the current practice of separating refugee parents from their children who go in cages with unsanitary and unsafe conditions. And yet there is little we can do! In fact, they won’t even donated accept books for the children so the opportunity for deeds by a Miss Breed is not even available!

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I’ve always known children’s librarians were special and Miss Breed truly sounds like she was a gem. Small acts of kindness can make a big difference to people.

  3. Trisha says:

    I buy more books for my kids from visiting your blog than I do from those magazines the schools send home. Sounds like a great book!

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