This post is part IIII of our four-part series on this year’s finalists for our annual Children’s History Book Prize. Join us here on our History Detectives blog over the next few weeks as we meet the authors and learn more about their amazing books. Read all four finalists, then help us choose the prizewinner by voting for your favorite in our online poll! Polls open the week of April 30. The winning author receives a $10,000 prize! Learn about the process of choosing the book prize winner.
This week we’re speaking with Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, who co-wrote Fighting for Justice: Fred Korematsu Speaks Up. Their book tells the heroic real-life story of Fred Korematsu, an American activist who spoke out against the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: Fred Korematsu is regarded as an American civil rights hero of the 20th century. If he were alive now, what issues do you think he would be speaking up about?
Stan: Before he passed away in 2005, Fred spoke out in defense of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian American citizens and immigrants who faced unfair government policies and discrimination after 9/11, just as Japanese Americans were the targets of hatred after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. In 2003, he submitted a legal brief to the United States Supreme Court on behalf of Muslim men whom the United States government had imprisoned without trials or charges. If he were alive today, we’re certain Fred would be speaking out against the ban preventing Muslims and refugees from entering the country. Karen Korematsu, Fred’s daughter, along with Holly Yasui and Jay Hirabayashi—the children of two other Japanese Americans who challenged the government’s World War II orders against Japanese Americans—have organized Stop Repeating History to connect the experiences of their fathers and Japanese Americans during World War II with current racism, xenophobia, and intolerance.
DCHM: What advice do you have for kids today who want to speak up for justice?
Laura: I’d suggest finding ways to speak up that feel positive, sustainable, and fit your personality. If you like drawing, try to use art as a way to speak up. If you like singing, try to find ways to use music to express what you think is right. I was a young activist in middle school and high school, and I got arrested protesting as part of the anti-nuclear and anti-Apartheid movements. For me, being an activist was also my social world and support structure. It was a way to hang out with other young people, combined with working to make the world a better place. You can have fun and work for change with your peers and broader community at the same time.
Stan: Big changes—like overcoming racial discrimination, ending gun violence, and achieving gender equality—take a long time and a lot of effort on the part of many people. The changes you seek may not come about right away. There may be setbacks. But don’t be discouraged. You may not immediately see the results of speaking up for justice, but your positive actions will make a difference over time.
DCHM: Why did you choose to tell Korematsu’s story through verse, prose, and illustrations all in one book?
Laura: We wanted young people to empathize with Fred Korematsu, effectively going through his experiences with him, rather than having his story feel like distant history. The free-verse present-tense poetic narrative allowed us to tell his story in that immediate and engaging way. We could then put historical information, images, and greater contextual analysis, in what we call “insets.” We wanted this to be really visually engaging, so that even struggling readers could connect with the book. We’ve got five Es as goals for this book and the series it’s launching: Empathy, Education, Engagement, Empowerment, and Entertainment. We hope this mixture of media allows readers to experience all of them.
DCHM: Photographs, newspaper articles, letters, artwork, and more are used throughout your book. What kind of research did you do in order to find all those primary sources?
Stan: We are deeply grateful to Lorraine Bannai, author of Enduring Conviction: Fred Korematsu and His Quest for Justice, for sharing her research materials (like Fred’s FBI files as well as interviews Fred did over the years). Eric Paul Fournier’s Emmy-award winning film, Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story, was also a very helpful resource. The Korematsu family and Fred T. Korematsu Institute, the California Historical Society (which houses the archives of the ACLU of Northern California), Japanese American National Museum, and National Archives were critical sources for visual materials. The Densho online archive was invaluable in hearing first-hand accounts from Japanese Americans, including Fred, who were incarcerated during World War II, as well as attorneys who represented Fred when he challenged his criminal conviction decades after the war. Finally, we also did quirky, fun research, like visiting the federal courthouse in San Francisco to check whether the floors are marble or wood so that we could include that detail in the book. Turns out the floors are mosaic tiles.
DCHM: Why should young people read historical nonfiction?
Laura: I’ve become such a huge fan of nonfiction, which I think is one of the most dynamic areas in the children’s book world. There are so many creative approaches to engaging young people with history—books which use creative formats and structures to teach us about our past. Probably the most important reason right now young people should read historical nonfiction is so that they can make informed choices as they become powerful voices in society. They can speak up for justice now, while young, and find a huge variety of ways to make a difference as they grow up. Learning about the past informs the present, and creates the future.
DCHM: What three words best describe Fighting for Justice: Fred Korematsu Speaks Up?
Stan and Laura: Inspiring, Relevant, Empowering
— Shana Fung