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Some Of My Favorite Nikkei Books, Part II: For Middle Grade and Young Adult Readers


After school this week, the kids at my daughters’ elementary school are rushing over to the library. They’re clutching wrinkled envelopes filled with checks and dollar bills and carefully counted change. They throw down their backpacks by the computers and head straight for cardboard booths. It’s book fair week.

As a librarian’s daughter, one of my favorite days growing up was the arrival of the book fair booths in the library at school. So this year, I volunteered to work at book fair, at my daughters’ elementary school. Because I knew I’d be writing more about children’s books this month, I decided to take an informal survey of the book fair offerings, to see which books featured characters or people of color. All the books were facing out or standing up, so this is only what I was able to gather from the book covers. Here’s what I found: Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña. Two DocMcStuffins books featuring young African American girls. Jacqueline Woodson’s book, Each Kindness. The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata. A book about American heroes of World War II, with a picture of Daniel Inouye on the cover. (And surprisingly, a section inside the book on camp, titled “Japanese American Prisoners of War.”)

Seven books. That was it, out of the hundreds of titles available. Sure, there were a lot of books about animals and cartoon characters and video games. But the school book fair is another filter that is supposed to present what’s new and exciting for kids to read. We still need more diverse books, we still need to point out the “mirror” books that fly under the radar, despite the best intentions of writers, editors, publishers, librarians, and booksellers. So here is another idiosyncratic list of my favorite books by and about Nikkei, for middle school and young adult readers.

Middle Grade

1001 Cranes, Naomi Hirahara

If you mention “a thousand cranes” to the kids and teachers at my kids’ elementary school, they will automatically think of Eleanor Coerr’s book Sadako and the Thousand Cranes. Now I am happy to point them to mystery novelist Naomi Hirahara’s book, her only book thus far for middle grade readers. Through the eyes of Angela Kato, the twelve-year old narrator, we find out about the rules and history behind the Japanese American tradition of folding 1,001 cranes for special occasions. I enjoyed reading about Angela’s struggle with her Japanese American identity and traditions, and I especially enjoyed the characters of her grandparents—Grandma Michi’s feistiness and the grandfather’s gentleness were two characteristics that resonated with my own experience and my own relatives.

Others to try: For more on adapting cultural traditions, try Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo by Greg Leitich Smith: notable for its focus on (among other things) a Japanese American adopted boy, like Smith himself, who grows up in an Irish American family. I also liked the similarly explored grandparent-grandchild relationship in Cynthia Kadohata’s book The Thing About Luck.

Drawing From Memory/The Inker’s Shadow, Allen Say

Noted author and illustrator Allen Say, whose book Grandfather’s Journey won the Caldecott Award, has just published two semi-autobiographical works, Drawing from Memory and The Inker’s Shadow. Both books contain wonderful mixes of text, comic strips, charcoal sketches, and watercolor paintings, each telling the story that closely resembles Say’s own journey from growing up as a 13-year old apprentice to Japan’s most famous cartoonist to his struggles as a military school student and budding artist in America.

Others to Try: The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice. Say published this autobiographical novel in 1979, republished it using his own nickname in 199(4). Some of the incidents and materials appear in the more recent memoirs, but illustrated and changed. The Sign Painter and Emma’s Rug also illustrate the rewards and challenges of being a young artist.

Journey to Topaz/Journey Home, Yoshiko Uchida

These books will always have a place on my shelf, not just because I met Ms. Uchida many years ago after she published Journey Home. When my fourth grader had to read historical fiction for a school assignment, I suggested these books to learn more about camp history and our family; she read both very quickly and with great interest. In my view, they are still some of the very best books about camp and its aftermath of resettlement. Based on Uchida’s own childhood experiences in Berkeley, Tanforan, and Topaz, the books are unsparing and honest in their depiction of camp life. Journey Home is an important sequel as one of the rare books about postwar Nikkei “resettlement.”

Others to try: Uchida’s “Rinko trilogy” (A Jar Of Dreams, The Best Bad Thing, The Happiest Ending). I’m curious to read Take What You Can Carry by Kevin Pyle—it’s a graphic novel that splices the sepia camp narrative of a Japanese American teenager with the story of a White contemporary teenager.

Young Adult/Teen

Ink and Ashes, Vaelynne Maetani

Maetani’s book recently won the Lee and Low New Visions Award, given to middle grade/young adult novels by writers of color. Maetani’s Yonsei protagonist, Claire Takata, is refreshingly tough and athletic, the tough older sister in a family of brothers and more likely to hang out with her brothers’ friends. Ink and Ashes is a gripping read, a teen mystery novel about Japanese organized crime, family secrets, and changing adolescent relationships. It’s unlike any other novel that I’ve read that features a Japanese American protagonist.

Others to try: For those who like seeing Japanese American characters and culture in a mystery setting, try Naomi Hirahara’s books, the Mas Arai and Ellie Rush series. I especially enjoyed Strawberry Yellow. I haven’t read Jet Black and the Ninja Wind, about a young Japanese American girl growing up on a Navajo reservation (and eventually traveling to Japan), but I’m looking forward to it. I’m also looking forward to reading Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible by Suzanne Kamata, featuring a biracial protagonist.

Other recommended sites featuring Asian American and Japanese American children’s books

The curated list seems to be one of the main ways (still) to highlight stories both by and about Nikkei, and since several other noteworthy places have compiled lists, I have added links below.

Asian Pacific American Librarians’ Association. Their annual list of award winners includes books by and about Japanese Americans. All the past winners of the award are listed here.

Densho’s encyclopedia entry about Japanese American children’s literature involving incarceration and their blog entry focusing on recommendations for books about incarceration.

Lee and Low/Tu Books is “the largest multicultural book publisher in the United States.” They have an Asian American collection.

PaperTigers is no longer current, but there is a good archive featuring multicultural children’s books.

Pragmatic Mom: Mia Wenjen’s “mashup covering parenting, children’s literature, and education” includes many wonderful curated lists, including multicultural young adult books, Asian American books.

San Francisco Public Library: “Our Asian Heritage: Children’s Books on the Asian American Experience”

Note: After press time, Scholastic and the We Need Diverse Books campaign announced a special collaboration to highlight diverse books in a reading flyer.

Read more about the special flyer at Scholastic’s website >>

We Need Diverse Books talks about Scholastic Reading Club collaboration >>


Read Part 1: Some of My Favorite Nikkei and Japanese American Children’s Picture Books


© 2015 Tamiko Nimura

allen say book review books children's books japanese american literature multicultural naomi hirahara Vaelynne Maetani Yoshiko Uchida