The Japanese American Incarceration in Youth Literature

"In biology class," by Ansel Adams at the Manzanar Relocation Center, obtained from
“In biology class,” by Ansel Adams at the Manzanar Relocation Center, obtained from

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed for military leaders to “prescribe military areas…from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War…my impose in his discretion” (emphasis added). This order goes on to provide for furnishing food and other necessities for the residents of these designated areas, one large group of which was to be Americans of Japanese descent. Over 100,000 Japanese Americans were unjustly imprisoned as a result of this order, in what Martin W. Sandler describes as “American concentration camps.” Below are a few resources for learning more about this dark period in our history, both nonfiction and fiction:


Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference by Joanne Oppenheim (2007 Amelia Bloomer Young Adult Book List). In this particular slice of the Dear Miss Breedimprisonment history, Oppenheim tells about Clara Breed, a San Diego librarian who had befriended many young Japanese American patrons and who kept in touch with them during their incarceration. Excerpts from letters between the correspondents and from interviews the author conducted with camp survivors help tell this poignant story.

Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of the Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and John D. Houston (1997 Popular Paperback for Young Adults). A now-classic memoir of one girl’s experience of being imprisoned at Manzanar War Relocation Center.

imprisonedImprisoned by Martin W. Sandler (2014 YALSA Nonfiction Award Finalist) In this overview of the Japanese American experience during World War II, Sandler purposefully uses strong language to point out the truth of that experience: unjust incarceration of civilians who had committed no crimes. Sandler relies on first-person accounts, but also draws the wider context of prejudice against Americans of Japanese descent even before the war and shows how the imprisonment affected Japanese Americans after they were released.


A Diamond in the Desert by Kathryn Fitzmaurice. Between his father’s arrest by the FBI and his family’s forced move to the Gila River Relocation Center, Tetsu’s life is completely upended. He finds a source of some hope when some of his new neighbors share his love of baseball and they work to build a baseball diamond in within the camp. The difficulties of camp life are brought forward when Tetsu’s younger sister avoids using the open-air lavatories and gets lost out in the desert, but the ending maintains a feeling of hope.

Eyes of the Emperor by Graham Salisbury (2006 Best Book for Young Adults). Like many other teens in his generation, sixteen year old Eddy Eyes of the EmperorOkubo lies about his age in order to sign up to fight when the US enters World War II. Unlike most of the young soldiers, though, Eddy and the friends he grew up with are under constant suspicion just because they are of Japanese descent. Matters get even scarier when Eddy is assigned to an experimental assignment: pretending to be the enemy in order to train attack dogs.

Take What You Can Carry by Kevin C. Pyle. Two stories intertwine in this graphic novel: in 1941, Ken is forced to Manzanar Relocation Center with his family, while in 1978, Kyle is running around with his friends and getting into trouble shoplifting. The connection Take What You Can Carrybetween the two doesn’t become apparent until later in the book, but both storylines show teens dealing with injustice and anger and finding community in unexpected sources.

Thin Wood Walls by David Patenaude. Like teens in many of the other stories here, Joe Hanada sees friendships turn to suspicion in his community after Pearl Harbor, then endures separation from his father and eventual relocation. Joe’s unique coping mechanism is writing in his journal, both reports of his life and poetry.

Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata. This story highlights two instances of racial injustice: Japanese American Sumiko and her family are sent to an Weedflowerinternment camp in the Arizona desert, land that has been taken from the Mojave people, as Sumiko learns when she meets Frank. Sumiko’s developing friendship with Frank and partnership with her neighbor, Mr. Moto, to make a garden grow in the desert, help her get through the experience.

This is just a small selection of the wide range of literature available on the subject. What recommendations do you have?

-Libby Gorman, currently reading 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl

5 thoughts on “The Japanese American Incarceration in Youth Literature”

  1. I just finished reading “When The Emperor Was Divine” by Julie Otsuka and thought it was moving.

  2. I just finished reading Under the Blood Red Sun by Graham Salisbury to my son (who’s fascinated with WWII) as a bedtime story. It’s geared more toward the younger end of YA/older middle grade. It’s all about a Japanese family who lives in Hawaii just before and after the Pearl Harbor attack. Very interesting racial tensions going on. Plus, lots of baseball.

  3. When I was in high school I loved FAREWELL TO MANZANAR. My first friend – at the age of 2! – was the son of a Japanese American internee. Our mothers were neighbors and good friends. Lost track of the family long ago but I still have a doll’s blanket she made me. The impression was lasting.

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