The best books on Japanese Americans

21 authors have picked their favorite books about Japanese Americans and why they recommend each book.

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Justice Delayed

By Peter Irons,

Book cover of Justice Delayed: The Record of the Japanese American Internment Cases

Peter Irons, at attorney, investigated the incarceration of US citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. He became so upset that he devoted his own legal career to securing a rare Supreme Court reversal of its infamous Korematsu decision. This book tells that story.


Who am I?

I’ve devoted my academic career and personal life to the limits and possibilities of white liberal approaches to civil rights reform. Trained in U.S. history and published in American Jewish history, I look closely at how ethnic groups and religious minorities interact with their racial and gender status to create a sometimes-surprising perspective on both history and our current day. At times powerful and at other times powerless, Jews (and other white ethnics) navigate a complex course in civil rights advocacy.


I wrote...

Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s

By Marc Dollinger,

Book cover of Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s

What is my book about?

While many American Jews reflect on the civil rights movement as a time of unparalleled solidarity and blame the break-up of the alliance between white Jews and Blacks on the rise of Black militancy, this book offers a new, deeper, and more complex understanding of race relations in that era. During the 1950s, white male Jewish leaders actually supported the Nation of Islam, an antisemitic organization. In the mid-1960s, many Jews lauded the rise of Black Power, celebrating its successes. By the 1970s, Jewish organizations copied Black Power strategies to strengthen American Jewish identity.

It Began with a Page

By Kyo Maclear, Julie Morstad (illustrator),

Book cover of It Began with a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way

Kyo Maclear is one of my favorite authors—someone who can gracefully transition from biography to graphic novel to memoir without losing her signature style, which is lyrical without being heavy-handed and playful without being cute. Like another book on my list, this one is brilliantly illustrated by the incredible Julie Morstad, who similarly manages to perfectly capture the unique spirit of each subject while remaining singularly herself. 

This story of Gyo Fujikawa, the artist who created the first book featuring babies of all races tumbling and playing happily together, weaves together myriad themes—the women’s suffrage movement, the internment of Japanese citizens during WWII, the sexism in academia, and the racism that first plagued young Gyo at school, and later made it so difficult for the adult Gyo to get her first book published. It manages all this while being effortlessly readable and entertaining. Brava, Kyo!


Who am I?

I am an award-winning author who grew up in a family of painters, poets, sculptors, and novelists; people who designed their lives around, and dedicated their lives to, artistic expression. I knew I wanted to be a writer at age three when I began dictating a poem every day to my mom. I first fell in love with Jane Austen as a student at Oxford, where I read my favorite of her novels, Persuasion.


I wrote...

A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice

By Jasmine A. Stirling, Vesper Stamper (illustrator),

Book cover of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice

What is my book about?

A Most Clever Girl tells the story of the world’s most beloved novelist, Jane Austen, and how she found her singularly witty, mischievous, and rebellious voice as a writer, despite losses that left her financially devastated, emotionally adrift, and unable to write for nearly a decade. 

I wrote this book to help my children, and all children, better understand the creative process—its fits and starts, its moments of exhilaration and frustration, and how it must be nurtured and tended to fully develop. I also enjoyed debunking the image of Jane as a dull spinster. Quite the contrary—Jane was a savage wit and proud rebel, who didn’t hesitate to put mighty men in their place with a few well-placed words. The book’s illustrator, also a devoted Janeite, visited all of the locations in the manuscript to create the artwork, which is lush and pitch perfect, making this book heirloom quality.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

By Jamie Ford,

Book cover of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford, the great-grandson of Chinese immigrants to the United States, nailed every detail in his debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHe crafted a gripping love story set against the backdrop of the shameful time in history during WWII when Japanese Americans were imprisoned in internment camps in Seattle. The story begins in modern-day when Henry (Chinese) finds artifacts from his youth at an abandoned hotel and relives the friendship and love he had for young Keiko (Japanese) when they were both school-aged children in the 1940s, despite all the racial barriers that existed at the time. A modern-day Romeo and Juliet if you will. This one will definitely tug at the heartstrings. 


Who am I?

I am an author of short stories, young adult novels, romance, even a reference book, but I will read any genre and any age group. As a librarian, researcher, book reviewer, and former school teacher, I have a long-standing love for historical fiction. When an author gets the details right, and you feel transported in time and place to WWII, or the 18th century, or Victorian England…there is nothing sweeter. Witnessing humankind overcoming huge obstacles, facing the most that human nature can take, and coming out on top? Definitely literary therapy! So put down the cell phone, pour a hot cuppa, and let these favourites of mine transport you.


I wrote...

#NotReadyToDie

By Cate Carlyle,

Book cover of #NotReadyToDie

What is my book about?

#NotReadyToDie offers a unique glimpse into an unimaginably horrific school day from the perspective of the students trapped inside and told in real-time. The suspenseful story focuses on the students, their relationships, how they cope with unimaginable stress, and their impressive strength. 

Kira-Kira

By Cynthia Kadohata,

Book cover of Kira-Kira

This beautiful, bittersweet novel tells the story of Katie; her sister, Lynn; and their brother, Sammy. Growing up in 1950s Georgia, in one of the few Japanese families in their town, the kids stand out and must struggle against prejudice, economic hardship, and Lynn’s eventual illness. What could be a bleak story is redeemed by Katie’s dry humor and the author’s portrayal of the deep bond between the children and within the family and the Japanese community. Lynn teaches Katie that however difficult life becomes, one must look for Kira-Kira—the things that glitter like the stars above. This book doesn’t flinch from hard topics: the labor conditions in the poultry industry, Lynn’s illness, racial prejudice. As a writer, I admire Kadohata’s willingness to tackle these issues and her faith that kids will learn from having such stories as part of their reading lives. 


Who am I?

I grew up in suburban Chicago as the middle of five children. My siblings were and are at the center of my world. Now I work with school-age children, and my fascination with the love/annoyance these relationships engender continues. I loved Little Women as a child, and stories of siblings, especially sisters, still tug at my heart. It’s no wonder my first middle-grade novel is just such a tale.


I wrote...

The Trouble with Twins

By Kathryn Siebel,

Book cover of The Trouble with Twins

What is my book about?

Kate DiCamillo meets Lemony Snicket in this darkly comic novel about two sisters who learn they are each others' most important friend! Imagine two twin sisters, Arabella and Henrietta--nearly identical yet with nothing in common. They're the best of friends . . . until one day they aren't. Plain and quiet Henrietta has a secret plan to settle the score, and she does something outrageous and she can't take it back.

When the deed is discovered, Henrietta is sent to live with her eccentric great-aunt! Suddenly life with pretty, popular Arabella doesn't seem so awful. And, though she's been grievously wronged, Arabella longs for her sister, too. So she hatches a plan of her own and embarks on an unexpected journey to reunite with her other half.

Displacement

By Kiku Hughes,

Book cover of Displacement

This book depicts the complexities of generational trauma. Kiku, our protagonist, discovers that she can go back in time and experience what her ancestors went through during the second world war. Kiku Hughes dives into the daily lives of citizens living in Japanese internment camps. It’s a brave look at the complicated relationship a person can have with the place they live in, given the difficulties their ancestries have gone through. Also, Kiku Hughes is an amazing illustrator. The bulk of the storytelling is through her depictions of the United States throughout different decades. 


Who am I?

Coming-of-age stories have always appealed to me because of their focus on an internal struggle. They’re usually juxtaposed with a changing landscape or moving to a new place. In broad strokes, coming-of-age stories focus on personal identity and our place in our day-to-day world. As someone who’s born in the US but grew up on the Mexican side but currently lives in California, the questions of what aspects of me are American and which are Mexican have been ongoing. With that in mind, these five books speak to me in a profound way, and I'm happy they exist as comics. 


I wrote...

Twin Cities

By José Pimienta,

Book cover of Twin Cities

What is my book about?

Twin Cities is a thoughtful and sweet look at two siblings growing apart as they continue their education on the different sides of the Mexico-US border. While Teresa adjusts to school in a foreign language, Fernando discovers that middle school in Mexico is a completely different place than elementary school. 

This Light Between Us

By Andrew Fukuda,

Book cover of This Light Between Us: A Novel of World War II

I loved this story about a Japanese-American boy who accidentally becomes pen pals with a French Jewish girl. Alex isn’t thrilled to find out Charlie is a girl, but as time passes, their friendship becomes an unshakeable bond—and then Charlie’s letters stop coming, and Alex’s family is forced into an internment camp by the US government. Alex siezes an opportunity to volunteer for a Japanese-American infantry regiment (the highly decorated 442nd), hoping all the while that he can somehow, miraculously, find Charlie.

This book is bittersweet and infuriating, cleverly juxtaposing the prejudice and mistreatment faced by Alex’s family with the ever increasing restrictions and cruelties faced by Charlie in German-occupied Paris, and it contains some of the best depictions of combat I’ve read in a YA novel.


Who am I?

I have a degree in history and political science, with a particular interest in military history—especially World War II history, and most especially Eastern Front history. My family has Polish roots, and my own stories tend to focus on the Polish and Ukrainian experiences, but I keenly feel the need for more YA books not only about the Eastern Front but about other, even lesser-known theaters of World War II.


I wrote...

Traitor: A Novel of World War II

By Amanda McCrina,

Book cover of Traitor: A Novel of World War II

What is my book about?

Traitor is the story of a half Polish, half Ukrainian Soviet sniper who goes on the run in 1944 Poland after not-quite-accidentally shooting his own political officer. He finds himself caught up in a muddled war-within-a-war between Soviets, Germans, Poles, and Ukrainians, all of whom consider him the enemy. It's a story about identity and belonging and, most of all, about holding on to humanity and compassion in the face of unimaginable hatred.

While I Was Away

By Waka T. Brown,

Book cover of While I Was Away

In my experience, a truly unique book is rare, and I’m always excited to find one that stands apart because of premise and setting. Waka is happy in her sixth-grade class in Kansasuntil her parents notice she’s losing her Japanese language skills and decide to take action. They send Waka to Tokyo to spend several months living with her grandmother and attending a local public school. In Japan, Waka struggles with reading and writing kanji, feels awkward around her reserved grandmother, and can’t figure out the social scene at school. Japan may be her parents’ birth country, but in Tokyo, Waka is an outsider. Where is Waka’s real home, and who will she be once she figures that out? An unforgettable memoir with lots of fun 1980s flavor. 


Who am I?

I’ve been a writer a long time and a reader for even longer. But, above all, I’m someone who has always been interested in people. The book universe is filled with fast-moving, plot-driven fiction, but I find myself drawn to stories focused on layered characters and complex relationships. Since I think families are so basic to our experiences as people, I’m always interested in those stories too. What the five books here have in common are big family changes—mostly caused by adults—that challenge the books’ main characters—who are all kids.


I wrote...

365 Days to Alaska

By Cathy Carr,

Book cover of 365 Days to Alaska

What is my book about?

Eleven-year-old Rigel loves her life in off-the-grid Alaska. She hunts rabbits, does school through the mail, and plays dominoes with her family in their two-room cabin. But when her parents get divorced, Rigel and her sisters have to move with their mom to the Connecticut suburbs to live with a grandmother Rigel doesn’t even know. Rigel’s holding fast to the secret pact that she made with her father before she left Alaska: if she can stick it out in Connecticut for one year, he’ll bring her back home. But can Rigel make it for that long? And even if she does, will she be the same person at the end of 365 days? 

Farewell to Manzanar

By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, James D. Houston (illustrator),

Book cover of Farewell to Manzanar

In the early days of World War II, the U.S. government ordered 120,000 Japanese Americans to leave their homes and move into internment camps. Manzanar, one such camp, was a hastily built town of army barracks surrounded by barbed wire. Jeannie’s family - all twelve of them - was assigned a space of two rooms with no running water. Except for a baby niece, Jeannie was the youngest. She did a lot of normal things - went to school, laughed and quarreled with her slightly-older brother, learned how to twirl a baton. But even so, she could never forget: she was just a kid, an American Citizen; and she was in prison.

Who am I?

A reader. A librarian. A writer. I majored in History/English in college, partly because I love historical novels. When my editor asked that my second book be set during the California Gold Rush, I knew I wanted to write from the Mexican point of view - I’m a quarter Mexican. I soon found myself deep in research, learning about those years when Mexico owned what is now the American Southwest. Writing Daughter of Madrugada left me wondering: were some of my own ancestors displaced by American encroachment?


I wrote...

Daughter of Madrugada

By Frances M. Wood,

Book cover of Daughter of Madrugada

What is my book about?

Cesa de Haro is the eldest child and only daughter of a Mexican land grant family in old California. The huge domain of El Rancho de la Madrugada belongs to the de Haros, and the de Haros alone—until Americans invade, hungry for gold.

The Pearl Diver

By Sujata Massey,

Book cover of The Pearl Diver

Sujata Massey is Indian and German. She has written a whole series of books set in Japan or featuring Japanese characters. This is her seventh featuring investigator Rei Shimura, and is set in Washington DC's restaurant world. Shimura's task: find a Japanese war bride who disappeared 30 years earlier. I love Rei Shimura’s wry humor and intelligence. My husband founded, and we owned, The Safe House, an espionage-theme restaurant in Milwaukee, so this book resonated with my experience.


Who am I?

I am a Canadian-American writer of Indian heritage, an award-winning novelist and short fiction writer, playwright, and poet. I grew up in Delhi, hearing stories from my maternal grandparents who were refugees during the 1947 Partition of India. So, as my work reflects, I’m drawn to stories of resilience in the face of cultural conflict, religious upheaval, migration, immigration, and displacement. My MBA is from Marquette University, and my MFA from the University of British Columbia. I am working on another novel.


I wrote...

The Tiger Claw

By Shauna Singh Baldwin,

Book cover of The Tiger Claw

What is my book about?

The Tiger Claw is a novel about Noor Inayat Khan, the Muslim woman who in 1943 was landed into war-time France by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) to work as a spy and radio operator for the Résistance. Noor goes in search of her Jewish beloved...and the rest is history.

Weedflower

By Cynthia Kadohata,

Book cover of Weedflower

This book, while it takes place in America, made me think of my mother who grew up in Japanese occupied Korea―she was forced to give up her Korean birth name for a Japanese name; forced to go to Japanese school and bow to large portraits of Emperor Hirohito; forced into the war effort at age twelve only to lose a finger while sewing buttons onto Japanese Imperial uniforms; Meanwhile, in America, a similar and heart-wrenching story unfolds in Weedflower, a story of innocent Japanese Americans going about their lives when Japan bombs Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, Japanese Americans are no longer considered American―they are the enemy.

Twelve-year-old Sumiko has always struggled to fit in, but when the war breaks out, struggles turn to fear for her and her family, so much so, they have no other choice but to burn all precious possessions from Japan including photos of family members…


Who am I?

In the wake of my father’s sudden death (when I was sixteen) I was left with many questions about my heritage. Why didn’t I know more about my parents and their homeland of Korea? Why wasn’t I curious enough to ask questions when my father was alive? Now I’m a Korean American author of many award-winning children’s books most of which are inspired by my family heritage. I’ve spent my adult life unearthing the past, immortalizing long-lost loved ones, sharing meaningful stories that would otherwise be forgotten. I’m drawn to historical fiction the way most people are to their smartphones. The truth is, there is no future without remembering the past.  


I wrote...

The Hundred Choices Department Store

By Ginger Park,

Book cover of The Hundred Choices Department Store

What is my book about?

1944, Sinuiju, northern Korea. Thirteen-year-old Miyook Pang has spent two years serving in the war effort on behalf of Japan during the Japanese Occupation of her country. Miyook endures exhaustion and illness, but only when she is sent to work in the dreaded dye factory does she experience spiritual death. Here she meets Song-ho, an orphaned boy, and unbeknownst to her, the brief encounter will prove fateful. When Japan loses the war, Russian soldiers capture her hometown leaving the city in ruin. With the Korean War looming, Miyook must take a dangerous flight south across the 38th parallel now guarded by armed soldiers. Here, once again, she encounters Song-ho, an event that will change the course of her life.

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