Review: Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, illustrated by Yutaka Houlette
By Clare Walters
The Fighting for Justice series ‘introduces young readers to real-life heroes and heroines of social progress’ through engaging words and pictures. This fascinating and beautifully produced book about a Japanese-American man who, along with approximately 120,000 other Japanese-Americans, was interned by the United States’ government during World War II certainly fits that bill, and would be suitable for children from top primary to lower secondary school age.
Although born, educated and living exclusively in the United States, after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, in which many American sailors were killed, Fred Korematsu was arrested as an ‘alien enemy’ and jailed. Two years on from his arrest, with the help of a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Fred argued in the Supreme Court that summarily imprisoning Japanese-American citizens violated their constitutional rights. He lost his case and was sent to a prison camp at Tanforan, south of San Francisco, where, with many other Japanese-American detainees, he lived in appalling conditions in the horse stalls of a former race track.
Almost 40 years later, in 1983, Korematsu challenged the original court ruling – and this time he won. Subsequently he continued to campaign for social justice issues and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton in 1998. Now in America 30 January has been designated as the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, and there is currently a movement to make this day a national federal holiday. Korematsu’s life history is quite a story… and it’s very well told in this impressive, well-researched, non-fiction title.
The book can be accessed in a number of ways, the first being through the spare, uncluttered pages that describe Korematsu’s life story from his birth in 1919 to the successful conclusion of his reopened court case in 1983. This tale is told over several chapters, each opening with a full-page illustration and using short paragraphs and lines, the text of which is in the present tense – giving it a powerful immediacy. Supporting the life history are the more in-depth sections of the second element of the book, which explain the historical background to Korematsu’s story and other relevant information. And for those who might find the detailed factual text daunting, there are explanatory captions to the many additional – and often, to the modern eye, very shocking – images that include contemporaneous photos, cartoons, illustrations, newspaper pages, posters, pamphlets, documents and maps.
This wide variety of material could potentially be confusing, but the elegant design of the book provides clarity. The ‘story’ element is presented much like a traditional picture book, with the text displayed on neutral backgrounds with white borders. The factual sections, along with timelines, are clearly displayed in separate boxes against a full-bleed, wood-textured, background with smaller drop-in boxes. Those in red provide definitions of specific words highlighted in the text, while those in dark grey or muted mustard tones ask the reader direct questions, such as ‘Have you ever been punished for something you didn’t do?’ or ‘Have you ever been an ally to someone who needed help?’ This direct address invites engagement, as it asks readers to link Korematsu’s story to their own lives, thereby opening up his experience to wider interpretation.
And wider interpretation is particularly relevant in current times, when fear of the ‘other’, be he or she of different race, creed or colour, is still prevalent. Korematsu’s story is brought to life in this book in a vivid and effective manner that should help raise awareness in young people (and in the adults who read alongside them) of the new social injustices unfolding now. It acts as a timely reminder of how hard-won some civil liberties can be.
Illustrations from the text via illustrator Yutaka Houlette’s website.
The Roehampton Readers participate in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group and meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists. In between, they meet for non-Carnegie/Greenaway book discussions. This review focuses on a book from one such discussion. The Roehampton Readers group is coordinated by NCRCL MA student Judy Digby.