For whatever reason, there has been a flood of children’s and young adult books on various aspects of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans in the last decade or so. Some of it is no doubt due to the increased interest in topics related to civil liberties issues in the years since 9/11, and I suspect funding for incarceration related projects from the federal government and from state governments also has something to do with it. There are some really good books out there, both fiction and non-fiction, which is certainly a welcome turn of events.
There are also a surprising number of older books as well. Yoshiko Uchida is a pioneering figure, with her 1971 Journey to Topaz being the first children’s book written by a Japanese American on the wartime incarceration experience and coming at time when the community was just starting to emerge from its period of silence about the World War II years. Uchida authored several other books on the topic in the succeeding years, but was about the only one doing so for a couple of decades. In the 1990s, Ken Mochizuki’s Baseball Saved Us (1993) and Graham Salisbury’s Under the Blood Red Sun kicked off a succession of books in the 1990s, leading up the explosion of titles we’ve seen in the 2000s.
The Pigtail Twins might be the first novel of any kind to mention Japanese American incarceration, though it does so in an oblique manner. Published by Friendship Press, the 126 page children’s book also includes illustrations by Janet Smalley. The story is set in “Mountain Valley,” Colorado and focuses on the third grade class taught by Miss Emeline and her students of German, Italian, Japanese, and Mexican ancestry, as well as other white students of indeterminate ancestry—including the twin daughters of the town’s minister whom the book’s title refer to—who are referred to as “native Americans.” The basic plot of the book has the children’s friendships and colorblindness—along with Miss Emeline’s encouragement and guidance—turn back the incipient bigotry displayed by some of the parents and other adults to transform the community into one big happy family literally singing together by end. While quite contrived and unlikely by 2014 standards, there is a sweetness and earnestness to the book that is still somewhat appealing.
At the start of the novel, one of the children in Miss Emeline’s class is Kasumi Ozamoto, described as the “child of a Japanese market gardener.” One of the book’s several subplots involves the arrival of Kasumi’s cousins at the school. In announcing their arrival, Miss Emeline tells the class that they “have come from California to live with Kasumi and his mother and father. Now they will not have to go to one of the wartime camps.” No additional explanation is provided. Later, the mother of the newly arrived cousins offers to teach an English class for Issei in the area.
For more, see the Densho Encyclopedia articles on each: