Review: Fred Korematsu Speaks Up

Yesterday, January 30th, was Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution. I didn’t know much about Fred Korematsu’s story before reading this brand new book, Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, written by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, and illustrated by Yutaka Houlette. I’m so thankful, now, that I do.
Fred Korematsu Speaks Up cover

Heyday Books
Middle-grade
Hardcover
, 112 pages
I
SBN: 978-159714-368-4
Price: $18.00

The book shares the story of Fred, and second-generation Japanese American living on the West Coast during World War II, when the United States forced immigrants and citizens alike into internment camps. Fred resisted the order, and was jailed. The ACLU took up his case, which he eventually lost. He lost more than just the case. Many Japanese Americans turned on him, and he was officially considered a convicted felon. More than 40 years later, the ACLU decided to try his case again after finding new documents showing that the government had lied in his original case… and this time they won, setting an important precedent going forward. Fred knew what was happening was wrong and stood up against it. He was a changemaker.
Here’s an excerpt from the main text:

Fred challenged something
he thought was unfair.
He spoke up–
for himself
and for all Japanese Americans,
even when no one stood with him.
It was not easy.
But Fred fought
to make the United States–
his country–
a fairer place.
And he won.
We all won.

I love the lyrical, spare text of the book. I love the engaging layout and design featuring illustrations, full-color photos, definitions of terms, and historical timelines. There are also sidebars and pullout boxes that explain concepts in greater detail and add context. And I especially love the callout bubbles that ask readers direct questions, such as, “Have you ever been punished for something you didn’t do?” These make Fred’s story all the more relatable and help readers make personal connections from Fred’s story to the injustices they see all around them every day.
In addition to nonfiction text features such source notes, bibliography, photo and text credits, and an index, the book also includes a fantastic section about how readers can stand up for social justice themselves. I’m sure it will encourage readers to pursue activism and changemaking for themselves.
The timing for a book like this couldn’t, unfortunately, be more timely and important, as it comes just days after the executive order banning immigration from certain countries.
As Fred’s daughter Karen writes in the afterword:

Fred Korematsu’s story is the reminder of the constant danger that the government will overreach unless the public and the courts are vigilant.

I urge you to check this one out for the children in your life, for yourself, and for our country and ALL of its citizens.

Fan mail: a teacher email about Be a Changemaker

I recently received this email from a middle-school teacher:

I wanted to let you know that one of my students has taken your book to heart.  He’s been carrying it with him for six weeks, and he is in the process of trying to start a nature club at school.  He is a super hard worker, and a wonderful, bright, sensitive 12-year-old boy–the type who might really make a dent in some of this world’s problems. He is passionate about this endeavor, but he doesn’t feel that he’s being taken seriously: adults are assuming he’s not going to work hard enough, he feels like things aren’t moving fast enough, and he’s disheartened. Still, he recently cited your book to me, saying, “She says sometimes it can take forever, and then sometimes things happen out of the blue,” so your words matter to him.

In the rush and hurry of getting through my inbox, this message brought me to a full stop. I’ve always said that I will feel like I’ve achieved success when I hear from one reader that my work mattered to them. Though not directly from the reader himself, this message from such a caring, dedicated, clearly amazing teacher on her student’s behalf feels every bit as wonderful. Reading this email was an even grander “first” for me than seeing my name in print for the first time, or holding the final book in my hands, or signing stacks of books at an event. This was a real connection with a young reader, a potential shift in the trajectory of this young man’s life that might not have occurred without my work. It’s both humbling and validating.
I have no doubt in the world that this student is indeed the type who might really make a dent in some of this world’s problems. It worries me, though, that even with this supportive teacher clearly on his side, he stills that one of the obstacles he faces is other adults assuming he’s not going to work hard enough. I mean really, what have we got to lose, adults? If they encourage him and he later quits, there’s no harm done: He feels valued and respected, he learns something about himself, and things go back to the way there were before. If they encourage him and he succeeds, the outcome really isn’t all that different: He feels valued and respected, he learns something about himself, and things get a little bit better.
I know that I’ve been guilty of similar reactions with my own children and their ideas. I’ve been too quick to point out what challenges I see and the reasons why their ideas might not be perfectly feasible. I questioned their long-term commitment to the projects they proposed. What I thought was helpful realism, however, wasn’t really that helpful at all. Indeed, what if my “realism” was actually cynicism, and maybe their “fantasies” could have actually worked? We’ll never know, because countless times I’ve inadvertently stopped them in their tracks before they even got started, all in the name of thinking things through and not embarking on something they couldn’t finish.
I think many of us (adults, especially, but kids, too) have become so goal-oriented that we don’t want to do or support anything that doesn’t seem very likely to succeed. We’re overly focused on the results, when so many of the potential benefits come from the process itself. We don’t want to waste time on something that might fail, but we forget that we learn by making mistakes.
If I’d focused on the likelihood of ever getting an email like this one, I would probably never have stuck with the process of honing my craft, revising my drafts, putting myself out there, etc. But if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be the person I am today, and I wouldn’t have received an email from a teacher that brought me to tears.
I’m going to try to do better for my own kids and other young people I interact with, and I hope you’ll commit to trying to support the young changemakers in your life as well. Let’s value their ideas and intentions for what they are, and let go of our expectations or concerns over the results. I have no doubt that, given the right encouragement, they are all the types who might really make a dent in some of this world’s problems. And we need each and every one of them to try.

Why write Be a Changemaker for teens?

To celebrate the United Nations’ International Youth Day, I wrote a guest blog for the Beyond Words blog explaining why I wrote Be a Changemaker specifically for young readers. Here’s an excerpt:

We know that young people have always been at the forefront of societal change. Adolescence is a time when people begin to question and critique the morals and standards of the society in which they are living. Teens and young adults start to appreciate the complexities of social problems and the tradeoffs that come with various solutions to those problems. In addition, young people are known for creating, adopting, and circulating the culture of their times, be it the peaceniks of the 60s or the hip-hop movement of today.

Modern youth, however, are more empowered than ever to shape the world as they see fit…

To read the whole thing, click here.

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