Each year, a committee of thoughtful and diligent YALSA members reads dozens of titles to determine the winner of the Michael L. Printz award for literary excellence in young adult literature. The committee also selects honor titles, a small group of exemplary books that merit special recognition. In 2021, the committee selected Traci Chee’s We Are Not Free to receive this honor designation, and this multi-vocal novel about the incarceration of Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor is worthy of every accolade it has received.
We are so grateful for Traci’s words and her wisdom, and most especially, for her time, given so generously for this interview. If you have not yet read We Are Not Free, perhaps this interview will convince you to move it up the TBR pile! And if you are a fan of audiobooks, the full-cast recording of this one is tremendous.
THE HUB: Besides being an important part of United States history, the events you explore in We Are Not Free are part of your family’s history. Would you describe your research process and how you balanced the external research with the personal stories from your family?
CHEE: For the first twelve years of my life, I wasn’t really aware that this had happened — I just didn’t know about it. And then, when I was twelve, my grandfather was awarded an honorary diploma from this school in San Francisco where he would have graduated if he hadn’t been evicted and incarcerated. That event put the incarceration in my mind as a thing that had happened in history and also a thing that happened to my family. But even then my family didn’t really talk about it very much. It was still something they played really close to their chest.
So, after that initial seed, I started reading novels like Journey to Topaz or Farewell to Manzanar, so I had this little bit of exposure through fiction, and then, I started hearing family stories here and there about what they had gone through in the camps. For example, there’s that moment in We Are Not Free where Yuki is shouted out of the ice cream parlor, and that is inspired by something that happened to my great-uncle when he was 8. So, I was gathering these things, and then in 2007 my mom and my aunt took me on a pilgrimage to Topaz, the incarceration camp site where my grandparents were. We drove all the way across the Nevada desert to this middle of nowhere, high desert location, and I got to stand at the old cement foundations where the barracks had been, where my grandparents had lived when they were 13 and 16. I got to look at the original barbed wire fences that had enclosed them, and it was a hugely powerful experience. That moment was when I really understood, as best I could without having experienced it myself, how harrowing it must have been to have been uprooted from San Francisco, which is so different from high desert Utah, and then to be plopped down there in what felt like a foreign country.Continue reading An Interview with Printz Award Honoree Traci Chee, Author of We Are Not Free