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Friday, May 9, 2014

GAIJIN: American Prisoner of War, written and illustrated by Matt Faulkner. Disney Hyperion Books, Hachette. 2014. $19.99 ages 10 and up

"The following morning...
 I think we can agree, young man,
that I've given you ample
opportunity to be a good citizen
of Alameda Downs, correct?
I guess.
If you continue with this bad
behavior I will be forced to send
you to a camp for juvenile
delinquents. Is that what you

I know that I have said this before...blah, blah, blah! I am not a huge graphic novel fan. I will read them, but I often pass them by. I have no awful experiences, I just don't read them often. Thankfully, that mindset goes by the wayside at times, or I would miss truly astonishing books such as this one.

Gaijin tells the story of Koji Miyamoto, a bi-racial boy living in San Francisco during WWII. After the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor in December 1942, many people of Japanese descent face further discrimination, racist taunts and poor treatment. Eventually Koji is sent to an internment camp to live out the duration of the war. His mother who is white accompanies him, not wanting him to be alone. His father is working in Japan at the time, which further arouses suspicion for the authorities. In fact, Koji worries that his father might be working with the Japanese.

Being in the Alameda Downs Assembly Center is no easier for a bi-racial boy than living outside it. Koji is taunted by others for his 'slanty eyes', accused of having 'Jap eyes' and called by the derogatory nickname, 'Gaijin'. He is also bullied and forced to take part in petty crimes.  His lack of motivation and his pent-up anger do not auger well for his ability to survive the internment ordeal. Did I mention that he is 13?

His kind and helpful neighbor works with Koji to help him overcome the deep anger at his lot in life...being a prisoner in his own country. His brushes with the law and his mistreatment of his mother could land him in big trouble. Camp conditions are horrible Instead, he is treated with compassion and that encourages him to find ways to temper his anger. Compassion wins out. I ended up quite liking him.

The illustrations are simply marvelous. Matt Faulkner fills his pages with strong visual content, in a rich palette of colors. You cannot help but be drawn into its full, rich design. The gouache illustrations ensure that readers feel the anger that Koji is feeling, and the angst that his mother feels while trying to deal with her son's troubles, as well as the calm and gentle demeanor of his neighbors.

An author's note tells that this story was inspired by a true story from Mr. Faulkner's family, that of his great-aunt. Any story that ups our knowledge of this time in world history should be important to the young readers who share it. A resource list will encourage further reading for those inspired to seek more information.


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