Japanese Internment Books for Kids & My Family's Story

Japanese Internment Books for Kids & My Family’s Story

During WWII, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were forced from their homes after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in February 1942 in response to prejudiced fears that Japanese Americans were spies.

I’m probably one of a few children’s book blogger whose family was forced into internment camps during WWII for being Japanese American. Let me tell you my family’s story:

Japanese Internment Books for Kids & My Family's Story

My mother was born in San Francisco’s Japantown. After school every day, she would go, on roller skates, from her high school to Japanese school to study the language and arts like ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement, stopping on the way in a Japanese convenience store for a snack like senbei, Japanese rice crackers.

She, like all Japanese Americans (and the Chinese who immigrated before them in large numbers), were subject to racism which included special laws meant to limit their economic success. For example, Japanese Americans like herself, were not allowed to work for the government as civil servants. Even if she aced the government civil service exam, she would never be hired. Japanese immigrants were, by law, not allowed to own property in the United States, even if they could afford to buy a home for themselves and their family. The Asian Exclusion Act, part of the Immigration Act of 1924, completely excluded immigrants from Asia.

The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia. from Historian

When soldiers showed up on her doorstep, giving her family just two days to pack up one suitcase each, leaving all their belongings behind; this didn’t happen overnight. A whole series of events happened leading up to this first.

Slap That Jap and Dr. Seuss racist cartoons

Dr. Seuss was a racist.

Japanese Americans were dehumanized. In the media and through entertainment like movies, musicals, and books, Asians were dehumanized. Dr. Seuss played his part in creating popular political cartoons against the Asian American population. Propaganda to sway the American people into indifference played a huge role. Just like in Nazi Germany.

Eliminating Japanese Americans competitors was the real reason for Internment camps. Japanese Americans were resented for their work ethic and what little economics success they achieved. Make no mistake, rounding up Japanese Americans and packing them off to concentration was an orchestrated effort by local prominent businessmen to eliminate competition. Once such family was the Knott Family of Knott’s Berry Farm who targeted local Japanese tenant strawberry farmers.

Japanese Americans’ Bank Accounts Were Frozen. They had two days to pack up one suitcase per person and were told they were being moved “for their own safety.” Of course, their concentration camps were walled with barbed wire, and the guns from the watch towers pointed in towards them.

My family spent WWII living in a tent. Instead of relocating to their assigned concentration internment camp, they moved to a remote part of Utah where they had relatives who were farmers. They worked the land, living in a camping tent for four years. Because life was hard, they joked that maybe living in an internment camp would be easier. My uncle joined the military as part of the 442nd regiment.

Japanese Family Crests

Our family crest is the second to the left on the first row.

Unfortunately, the American government was testing nuclear weapons underground not too far from where they lived. My mother and her siblings all eventually got cancer. Her siblings died; my mother is a breast cancer survivor. And here’s the greatest irony of all. My Japanese side of the family is from Hiroshima.

Of Daimyo noble descent, they lost their land — basically a township — during Japan’s Meiji Revolution. The roots of this shift in power was due to America’s Admiral Perry who forced Japan open to foreigners.

And, of course, there was the nuclear devastation from the bomb. My mother visited Pearl Harbor twice in her lifetime. The first was on behalf of her brother to receive recognition for his bravery during WWII as part of the 442nd regiment. She went again with me as part of a family vacation a few years ago. When I was in business school, I spent a summer in Japan working for a Japanese company. We visited Hiroshima; I met my relatives, and we saw the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum.

In many ways, my mom lived WWII. Born an American citizen, she was forced to relocate for being of Japanese descent. Her family’s financial distress stretches back to Admiral Perry whose interference resulted in seismic changes in Japanese government, removing them from their source of financial stability, and causing them to lose ancestral land, which included sacred family burial grounds. To earn money to buy these lands back, they immigrated to the United States. And their ancestral land was one of two locations where devastation was wrought by nuclear bombs.

Now, in 2016 there is threat to muslims to be placed in similar concentration internment camps. What can we learn from our own history? Racism. Economics. Complicity. It is up to every decent human being in America to stop this if this dark chapter of American history isn’t to repeat itself.

Japanese Internment was not about American safety. It was about racism and economics. The Japanese and Chinese immigrants worked harder and cheaper and white competitors resented losing business to them. Internment camp was the perfect way to eliminate competition.

Fred Korematsu Google Doodle

Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case concerning the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, which ordered Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II regardless of citizenship.

In a 6–3 decision, the Court sided with the government, ruling that the exclusion order was constitutional. Six of eight Roosevelt appointees sided with Roosevelt. The lone Republican appointee, Owen Roberts, dissented. The opinion, written by Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, held that the need to protect against espionage outweighed Fred Korematsu’s individual rights, and the rights of Americans of Japanese descent.

During the case, General Charles Fahy is alleged to have suppressed evidence by keeping from the Court a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence indicating that there was no evidence that Japanese Americans were acting as spies or sending signals to enemy submarines.

As for my mother, as soon as WWII ended, she took the Civil Servant exam and got a job as civil servant because the laws changed. She bought her family including her aging parents a duplex to live in near the Los Angeles Airport. It was too painful to go back to San Francisco I suspect. Her old apartment in San Francisco was torn down to make way for a new development. We drove by it when we took her to visit many years later. In the rubble was a samurai sword, with a crest of her family (second from the top left in the crests above), that they hid between the walls in the hurried days when they were forced to leave. No weapons were allowed.  It was a symbol of their past and now it’s gone forever.

And now, with the threat to round up those who are Muslim and put them in concentration camps? No. No a million times. We have to be ones to stop it. We can not let Muslim Americans become dehumanized. We have to stand up for them.

p.s. Related book lists for kids:

Hiroshima Project and Book List for Kids

Pearl Harbor Book List for Kids

Remembering the Veterans In My Life Book List for Kids

Japan: Books for Kids on Shogun, Family Crests and Art of Shogun Period

p.p.s. More internment stories:

George Takai (Actor) Describes His Experience in a Japanese Internment Camp

George Nakashima (Father of American Crafts Movement): Artisan Imprisoned in US Internment Camp


Japanese American Internment Books for Kids

Fred Korematsu Speaks Up (Fighting for Justice series) by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, illustrated by Yutaka Houlette

This series celebrates real-life heroes and heroines of social progress. This is Fred’s story of standing up for justice by refusing to go to Japanese Internment camps for simply being of Japanese descent. He went to jail for resisting and his courage made the United States a fairer place for all Americans. [ages 10 and up]

Fred Korematsu: All American Hero by Anupam Chander, Madhavi Sunder, and  Angelia Loi

Using a comic book format, this book tells the story of Fred Korematsu, a mild-mannered ordinary welder working in a shipyard who fights for justice during WWII. [graphic novel, ages 8 and up]

So Far From the Sea by Eve Bunting

Laura Iwaski and her family visit her grandfather’s grave at the Manzanar War Relocation center where he died during internment.  Both her parents were relocated though at different camps.  Her father was a little boy when this happened and this marks the last time they will visit before moving to Boston.  Their final visit sums up the attitude of most Japanese-Americans who were forced to relocate:  a terrible thing that happened to them.   But , as the Dad says, “Sometimes in the end there is no right or wrong.  It is just a thing that happened long years ago.  A thing that cannot be changed.”  [picture book, ages 8-12]

Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki

Ken Mochizuki’s were interned at Minidoka Internment camp in Idaho, and this is the story based on true events, of how they used baseball to cope.  The little boy in the story is small for his age, but preserves to become an excellent player.  The story continues post-internment and things are not better.  Luckily, the boy’s skill in baseball helps to bring everyone together.  This is the author’s first picture book. [picture book, ages 8-12]

The Bracelet by Yoshiko Uchida, illustrated by Allen Say

I read this story a long time ago and remembered that it was a particularly sad story of internment that I couldn’t bring myself to read to my girls. The little Japanese girl is given a bracelet by her American friend that she brings to internment camp that gets lost.   [picture book, ages 8-12]

A Place Where Sunflowers Grow by Amy Lee-Tai

A bi-lingual (Japanese/English) story about the author’s grandmother who was interned at Topaz and really did grow 8 foot sunflowers in the desert.  A stoic story about coping with internment.  This is the author’s first book.  [picture book, ages 7-11]

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

10 year old Manami tries to sneak her dog into internment camp when her family is separated during WWII due to anti-Japanese American laws enacted. She and her parents and grandfather must leave Bainbridge Island in Washington for a dreary camp in the desert of California. They lose everything they own, save for a suitcase they can carry. Manami loses even more; her voice is gone from the trauma and she doesn’t speak after her dog is taken away. The riot in Manzanar is not well known in U.S. history, and this chapter book gives back some of the humanity taken away from the Japanese Americans who were forced into concentration camps for simply looking like the enemy. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]

Dust of Eden: A Novel by Mariko Nagai

I’ve read many picture books at the Japanese American internment (my mother was one such person forced to relocate during WWII) but Nagai’s novel in verse is the first to really make me feel and understand the racism that my mother, who was born in San Francisco’s Japantown, faced. (And it makes my blood boil.)

Japanese American internment WWII

… I would change my hair color into a honey


blond that changes into lighter

shades of almost white during the summer,

just like Jamie’s. If I could change

my name, if I could change my parents,


I could change my life. I would be an American.

But I already am.

Nagai’s haunting novel in verse chronicles the Mina Tagawa’s family after the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Her father is held in prison without charges, her grandfather suffers in stoic silence, her older brother’s anger and her mom’s graceful pride not to let racism destroy them. They are forced from Seattle to Camp Harmony and then to Minidonka Relocation Center in Idaho, losing three years of their lives and much, much more.

More on Minidoka Relocation Center.

Minidonka Relocation Center Japanese Americans WWII

During WWII, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were forced from their homes after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in February 1942 in response to prejudiced fears that Japanese Americans were spies.

In 1988 when most internees were dead, the U.S. Government paid reparations to the surviving internees. My mother used hers to buy a Lexus which she drove until she could no longer operate a car.

Japanese American Internment

You may not have heard of civil rights hero, Fred T. Korematsu.

In 1942, at the age of 23, he refused to go to the government’s incarceration camps for Japanese Americans. After he was arrested and convicted of defying the government’s order, he appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled against him, arguing that the incarceration was justified due to military necessity.

In 1983, Prof. Peter Irons, a legal historian, together with researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, discovered key documents that government intelligence agencies had hidden from the Supreme Court in 1944. The documents consistently showed that Japanese Americans had committed no acts of treason to justify mass incarceration.

With this new evidence, a pro-bono legal team that included the Asian Law Caucus re-opened Korematsu’s 40-year-old case on the basis of government misconduct. On November 10, 1983, Korematsu’s conviction was overturned in a federal court in San Francisco. It was a pivotal moment in civil rights history. From Korematsu Institute

Dust of Eden forces us to remember what happened and one hopes it will not happen again to anyone, but that’s only if we truly learn from our mistakes.

A Jar of Dreams by Yoshiko Uchida

11-year-old Rinko lives in Berkeley, California during the Great Depression and life isn’t easy, especially when you are Japanese American because she encounters prejudice almost daily. When her family opens a small laundry, their local competitor, a well-known bigot and bully, threatens them.  Things change when her Aunt Waka comes to visit from Japan,  and she helps to convince them to chase their dreams, even if it seems improbable that they will be given the same opportunities as non-Asians.  Despite the prejudice that her family faces, Rinko learns to take pride in her Japanese self.

A Jar of Dreams is an accurate portrait of what life was like for Japanese immigrants pre- WWII, but it also details the determination, hard-work, and strong familial bonds that propelled them to succeed.  [chapter book, ages 10-14]

This book list is from Books Kids Love. All of these books are out of print except for Weedflower. You can probably get them from your public library though.

The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559, Mirror Lake Internment Camp by Barry Denenberg

“Ben spent his twelfth and thirteenth years in a Japanese internment camp at desolate Mirror Lake, even though he was born in America, had never been to Japan, and could speak few Japanese words. He records his experiences and emotions in this fictional journal. At the camp, residents lived like prisoners, with barbed wire and armed guards everywhere. He writes about the sadness and frustrations of life in the camp, but also about some positive things, like playing on the camp baseball team. Historical notes and photographs are provided at the end. As with many books in this popular series, this title will help personalize this ipportant event in American history.” [historical fiction chapter book, ages 9 and up]

Remembering Manzanar: Life in a Japanese Relocation Camp by Michael Cooper

“Loaded with haunting photographs and quotes from former residents (which were published in their newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press), this nonfiction title describes and provides photographs of the Manzanar Internment Camp and the living conditions and daily lives of the Japanese Americans who were interned there.” [nonfiction picture book, ages 9 and up]

I Am An American by Jerry Stanley

“The Japanese-American experience during WWII is illustrated in this sad tale of one of America’s darkest times. Focusing on what happened to one high-school boy, the author relates Shi Nomura’s experiences to the main events of the bombing, war panic, removals to camps, return to their devastated homes, and the official government apology.” [chapter book, ages 9 and up]

The Invisible Thread by Yoshiko Uchida

“The powerful memoir of a girl consigned to a concentration camp–by the US government. Yoshiko felt like a normal American girl living a normal American life, until Pearl Harbor. After that, her family and others were rounded up and sent to an intern- ment camp in the desert, along with tens of thousand of other Japanese-Americans who had no civil rights and no ability to protest the act. Uchida’s treatment of this difficult period in US history is age-appropriate and handled with care.” [chapter book, ages 9 and up]

Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata

“Sumiko and her Japanese-American family are sent to an internment camp in the Arizona desert where they live in dusty military barracks. The camp is on an Indian reservation, and her budding friendship with a young Mohave boy depicts the joys and problems of an inter-racial friendship and fore- shadows of futures of these populations afterward.”  [chapter book, ages 12 and up]

Thank you for this recommendation from Ruth Barshaw:

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War by Matt Falkner

Families were separated based on their ethnicity as in this Japanese Internment story in which half Japanese Koji Miyamoto is sent to Internment camp while is white mother is allowed to stay in San Francisco. Being half white at camp is just difficult as being half Japanese in California. This is a true story based on Matt’s aunt’s life. [graphic novel, ages 10 and up]

Thank you for this recommendation from Patricia Tilton of Children’s Books Heal:

Sylvia & Aki by Winifred Conkling

This book reveals the remarkable, never-before-told story—based on true events—of Mendez vs. Westminster School District, the California court case that desegregated schools for Latino children and set the stage for Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education at the national level.

From Booklist: This novel presents a fictionalized account of injustices endured by two real California children during World War II and is based on multiple interviews with both and other historical records. In alternating chapters Conkling follows the forced relocation of young Aki Munemitsu and her family to a camp in Arizona and the experiences of Sylvia Mendez, who moves into Aki’s old room when her father rents the Munemitsus’ asparagus farm. When his children are denied enrollment in the town’s main school, Sylvia’s father institutes what becomes the landmark desegregation suit Mendez v. Westminster School District. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]

Four-Four-Two by Dean Hughes

Review from Ms. YingLing Reads:

Yuki lives on a farm in California, and right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, things get bad. His father is taken away, and the family ends up at an internment after having to sell the farm. Despite this, Yuki andhis friend Shig both feel that they should join the army, and end up training in the South and being deployed to Italy with the 442nd “Go For Broke” regiment. This group saw horrendous action and was involved in a lot of fighting. Yuki sees many of his comrades fall on the field of battle, and sees others gravely injured. He suffers wounds himself, and also battles crippling pain in his feet due to having to remain in wet footwear in the cold. Eventually, a bullet and a collapsed lung send him home, where he faces prejudice in a Colorado barber shop and returns to his family in the internment camp. [young adult, ages 12 and up]

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson

Review by Ms. YingLing Reads:

Sachiko Yasui was six years old when the US dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Miraculously, she survived with minimal immediate wounds, as did her parents, three siblings, and an uncle. While they struggled with housing, food and general survival for quite some time, the real problem was the after effects of the radiation. Her brothers and uncle succumbed quickly, and caner eventually took her sister and father as well. At the time of publication, however, Sachiko was still alice. She chose not to speak about her experiences until after the death of her mother in 1992.

This book tells her story in an informative and yet gripping way. The historical background of the war is explained in understandable ways and adds depth to the narrative. Period photos, ads, and other documents are all helpful in explaining the larger picture, and the bibliography will help students find other books on the topic.

This would be an excellent companion book to Kathleen Burkinshaw’s The Last Cherry Blossom, and is best read after that book, since it picks up near the end of that fictional title. At 112 pages, it is a perfect length, and I’m excited to have this title to offer to students who either are interested in this time period OR are being “forces” to read nonfiction for class. Both types of students will be pleased with this. [young adult, ages 12 and up]

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw

Review from The Children’s War:

The Last Cherry Blossom is a story of unfathomable loss, but also of hope, resilience, and survival. Paired with Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, both these stories should stand as a cautionary tale about war and the use of what we would now call weapons of mass destruction, and never forget that, as Burkinshaw reminds us in her Afterword, “the victims were all someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, or child.”  It was true then, and is still true today. [chapter book, ages 11 and up]

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr, illustrated by Ronald Himler

Review from The Children’s War:

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes is a emotionally, powerful story.  It is a perfect book for introducing this difficult topic to young readers.  There are no detailed graphic images described about the war, the bomb or even to after effects, only an acknowledgement of these things.  [chapter book, ages 8 and up]

 To examine any book more closely at Amazon, please click on image of book.

Japanese Internment Books for Kids & My Family's Story

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 p.s. 21 powerful photos show what life inside a Japanese internment camp was like here.

By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. When we were studying World War II I read Baseball Saved Us and The Bracelet to my boys. We also read I survived the bombing Pearl Harbor in which a Japanese American was arrested for belief that he was a spy. We talked about this dark time in our history and I pointed out to my boys that other than not killing them we didn’t treat Japanese Americans all that differently than Hitler treated the Jewish people. It’s scary to think that it could happen again… it’s hard to imagine and yet what you point out in your story is true. Propaganda and media can easily sway public opinion. I read your story aloud to my boys too. I want them to know. I want them to remember and try to understand… in the hopes that we can become better people.
    Mother of 3 recently posted…Wordless Wednesday: Aquarium TripMy Profile

    • Thanks so much for teaching your kids about WWII and Japanese Internment camps Mother of 3. If history is not to repeat itself, we must remember the past and be vigilant that we learn from our mistakes. It bothered me and my family so much that a Trump supporter used Japanese Internment as an example of US government jurisdiction. As if this is ok. God, this is going to be a long 4 or 8 years!
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…My 2017 Newbery PredictionsMy Profile

  2. Olivia

    Thanks for sharing your family’s story. Heartbreaking.

    • Thank you so much Olivia! I have to say that my mother has a sense of humor about it and never really felt anger towards the American government. She said that the Mormon community also was supportive in the sense that they would come over and try to convert them so she would have discussions debating Buddhism versus Mormon religions. I think she enjoyed that very much! She always told that story with a twinkle in her eyes!
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…My 2017 Newbery PredictionsMy Profile

  3. Dee

    I don’t get to read the blog every day. Some days, I skim the headlines and move on to whatever task is yelling at me to get started. But days like these, I have to click over no matter what is yelling at me. Mia, you do a great service to your family, to your readers, and to past and potential victims of such atrocities by using your voice to shed light and explain. Thank you! Such a sad, shameful part of American history. Even sadder that we fear it could happen again to another culture.

  4. Your family’s story is so sad and moving. Your mother is so brave!! Thank you for sharing it again, along with all of these fine books. It’s a shameful and so recent part of our past, and we must not forget, and we must not let anything like this happen again. Ever!! Hugs to you!!!!

  5. Thank you for sharing this terrible time in American history, from an inside perspective. It’s important that kids know the good, bad and the ugly facts so that dehumanizing actions don’t occur again.

    I remember, several years ago, when my mom told me about WW II from her viewpoint as a child. She was confused and afraid when she saw Japanese in her city ‘camped’ in the Pomona Fairgrounds. (Her reference point for ‘camped’ was because she was a migrant worker and U.S born).

    Years later she found out the truth of the internment and heard the story of the Mexican Repatriation in the 1930’s, which sent many US citizens of Mexican descent to Mexico during the depression. She says, never think repatriations or internments, can’t happen again because that refusal to believe is what evil counts on.
    Mona AlvaradoFrazier recently posted…Celebrating The Past On Thanksgiving DayMy Profile

  6. Monise

    I read Baseball Saved Us a few weeks ago! I’ve started a list through my local library of books on the Japanese Internment Camps. This is such a shameful part of U.S. History and our schools need to do more to teach kids about it.

  7. Kathy

    Thank you for so bravely sharing your family’s story! I’ve read books about this tragic and upsetting time in our history but it’s even more meaningful to read first-person accounts.

    • Thanks so much Kathy! I’m happy to share and I know that my mom is glad too! I think this experience made all Japanese Americans from that era eager to assimilate as much as possible to be seen as “American.” The result is that there isn’t as strong a community for Japanese American if you compare them to Korean Americans in the US. Also, the books for kids on Japanese Americans is largely limited to WWII. I’m so glad Debbi Michiko Florence has a new series called Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen that is modern day Japanese American. It’s authentic and has a great character in Jasmine that reminds me of Clementine or Ramona. She also mixes in Japanese culture which I really love.
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…My 2017 Newbery PredictionsMy Profile

    • Kathy

      Thanks, I’ve added some of her books to our wishlist! 🙂

  8. Thank you for sharing your story, Mia. It really makes my skin crawl how history is unfolding in this country at the moment. Let’s all work together to make sure something like this never ever happens again.

  9. Thank you for sharing your story. It is difficult to write about a personal injustice especially in our current climate and you did so beautifully.

  10. Wow! I didn’t know this personal history about your family and Japanese Internment camps. Gives me chills. The timing of your post is perfect. You’d think that we would learn from our history, but… It’s up to all of us to make sure something like this doesn’t happen to immigrants, especially Muslims. Thank you for sharing.

    Great book suggestions. I’d add Sylvia & Aki by Winifred Conkling, about Sylvia Mendez’s family moving into Aki Munemitsu’s farm when they are sent to a Japanese internment camp. The girls became friends and remain so today.
    Patricia Tilton recently posted…Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby DaggMy Profile

  11. Don’t forget Matt Faulkner’s GAIJIN, a graphic novel (Disney’s Hyperion, 2014) about one family’s experience in one of the camps. It’s based on Matt’s aunt’s life and it is meticulously researched and beautifully illustrated.

  12. Thank you for sharing your story.

    My sister-in-law’s family was interned during the war, and so were the families of many friends (including you). This is a story that really needs to be heard right now, and I am glad you are part of the telling.

    This past summer, one of my friends shared excerpts from the journal her uncle kept during his internment.

    This is a dark part of American history that we cannot afford to repeat.
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