Reading In Tandem: FRED KOREMATSU SPEAKS UP by LAURA ATKINS & STAN YOGI


Boy, talk about TIMING being EVERYthing. Heydey Books could have had no idea how vital and timely their new “Fighting for Justice” series could be, in view of …well, basically everything lately.

With Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017 being the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which began Japanese Internment, with Google taking Fred Koramatsu Day as an opportunity to create a special Doodle just for him, and with threats active against Muslims, immigrants, refugees, women, people of color, and LGBT people, the scene couldn’t have been better set to release this first book in the series about freedom fighters and speaking up – encouraging our younger generation to get in there as well.

Kirkus, in its starred review, says, “Atkins and Yogi raise good questions…that will inspire a new generation of activists. This first book in the Fighting for Justice series is a must-read for all civics classrooms.” Elizabeth Partridge, award-winning author of MARCHING FOR FREEDOM: WALK TOGETHER, CHILDREN, AND DON’T YOU GROW WEARY,” simply called it, “Brilliant.” We found ourselves in the curious position of reviewing a MG social studies book/novel. Not our usual neighborhood, when our specialty is diverse YA fiction, but full disclosure, the author, Laura Atkins, is a friend, and we’re excited about her involvement in what we see as a really worthwhile project. So without further ado:

Welcome to another edition of In Tandem, the read-and-review blog series where both A.F. and I give on-the-spot commentary as we read and blog a book together. (Feel free to guess which of us is the yellow owl and which of us is purple …we’re not telling!)

We are…

Two writers,

     & Two readers,
            Exploring one book…

In Tandem.

Fred Korematsu liked listening to music on the radio, playing tennis, and hanging around with his friends—just like lots of other Americans. But everything changed when the United States went to war with Japan in 1941 and the government forced all people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes on the West Coast and move to distant prison camps. This included Fred, whose parents had immigrated to the United States from Japan many years before. But Fred refused to go. He knew that what the government was doing was unfair. And when he got put in jail for resisting, he knew he couldn’t give up.

Inspired by the award-winning book for adults Wherever There’s a Fight, the Fighting for Justice series introduces young readers to real-life heroes and heroines of social progress. The story of Fred Korematsu’s fight against discrimination explores the life of one courageous person who made the United States a fairer place for all Americans, and it encourages all of us to speak up for justice.

We received copies of this book courtesy of the publishing company. You can find FRED KORAMATSU SPEAKS UP by Laura Atkins & Stan Yogi at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!


tanita: Remember the hashtag on social media called #MGGetsReal? Its intention was to highlight some really great middle grade fiction but boy, do I think this one belongs on the list. So, Laura, why Fred Koramatsu? Why his story, out of the many stories of injustice?
Laura: Fred Korematsu’s story is important in many ways. He stood up during one of the worst civil liberties infringements in our nation’s history. It was a time of war and many people were afraid to speak up. He lost so much – his girlfriend, the support of his family and many in his community, and after his conviction, the ability to get certain kinds of work. It took enormous courage to continue to fight Japanese American incarceration, but he stood strong.
Fred didn’t start out meaning to be an activist, but he knew that was right. As my coauthor Stan Yogi says, Fred wasn’t a big man, or a tall man, or a loud man. But that didn’t stop him from having a powerful impact. He’s a hero and model of our time, and not enough people know about his story.
tanita: Truly – most of us, even those of us living in California – had still never heard of Fred Koramatsu, even though there’s been Koramatsu Day since 2010!
sarah: So, technical question — how did you get involved in this project? And, what was your process like, moving from editing to authoring? What were the new challenges and rewards of the journey, as contrasted with your recent picture book?

Laura: I feel incredibly lucky to have been brought into the series. The idea for it was hatched between Stan and the then-publisher at Heyday Books, Malcolm Margolin. Stan had co-written a book for adults called Wherever There’s a Fight, which gives a history of civil liberties fights in California. Malcolm and Stan felt that kids should also learn about people who have stood up for their rights, and they decided to do so through a series of biographies.
tanita: ::Makes note to check out Stan’s other book::
Laura: I was brought in first as a developmental editor (I’ve spent over twenty years working in children’s book editorial jobs, at Children’s Book Press, Orchard Books and as an editor at Lee & Low, then freelance). Eventually, we decided that with my children’s book background, and Stan’s personal experience, writing background and social justice orientation (his parents were incarcerated in the prison camps, and he previously worked for the ACLU), we could create a fantastic book together.
In this case, we decided to follow a format that includes Fred’s biography in verse, written to engage readers directly and emotionally with his experiences. I took the lead on that section. And then we have insets which extend themes from Fred’s life, such as talking about discrimination, explaining historical events such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and giving more details about Fred’s legal battle, including the role of the Northern California branch of the ACLU. We were able to include lots of images, drawings, photos, and also definitions of key words, a timeline, and questions for kids to consider in their own lives. Stan took the lead on that section. And our editor, Molly Woodward, carried a huge part of the load as we had to pull everything together in a short period of time. Molly was a key person in bringing the book and the series to life.

It was a big challenge. Tons of information, research, and sending emails between all three of us. Sometimes it was hard to keep track. But I love that it was so collaborative, and with so many voices, including Stan’s, which comes from a first voice perspective. This was a story that spoke to his family’s experiences, his experiences, and which was personal. For me, I come from an activist background, and so it gave me a chance to talk to kids about the importance of their voices. They can speak up and make a difference, just like Fred.
tanita: Okay, and now I have to sneak in another technical book question in here as well. Speaking of research, many YA writers right now are petrified of historical fiction, because research can be a serious rabbit hole – and especially right now, we’re really big on authenticity in the YA community, so there’s a ton of pressure to Get It Right. Can you describe your research process for this book? What was the most interesting discovery you made about Fred’s story?
Laura: There was a lot of research here, but it was mostly fun! We were lucky that Lorraine Bannai has a book for adults about Fred Korematsu, Enduring Conviction. Lorraine was one of Fred’s lawyers when he challenged his conviction and she directs the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality and professor of legal skills at Seattle University School of Law. We also had fantastic reference sources such as the Densho archive, which exists to educate about Japanese American incarceration during WWII. Stan brought a lot of background from having written about Fred before. And we had the collaboration and input from Karen Korematsu, Fred’s daughter who also directs the Fred Korematsu Institute. There are also a couple of documentaries made about Fred’s life. Especially helpful was Of Civil Wrongs and Rights.

That said, there was still plenty of additional research to do, plus keeping track of dates, and figuring out which elements to choose to tell the story. I started out speaking to the fantastic Betsy Partridge to get her advice. She was one of my advisors when I did the MFA in Writing for Children at VCFA, and an incredible resource. She was the one who suggested we start with the story of Fred trying to get a haircut and being turned away for being Japanese American. She said that all kids would be able to relate to getting a haircut, so it could be an effective way to draw them into the story.

There were so many details to research, between his biography and the stories extended in the insets. One of my favorites is of the story of Ralph Lazo. He was a high school student in Los Angeles, of Mexican American and Irish ancestry. He had many friends who were Japanese American, and was so outraged by the mass incarceration that he went to live with his friends in the Manzanar prison camp. To me, this is an incredible example of someone standing in solidarity during a difficult time. I had never heard of Ralph Lazo before, and think this will be true for many people who encounter the book. I love that we can use this book, and the series, to focus not just on individuals, but many people who have been involved in speaking up for justice and equality. Activism requires many people speaking out and working together, as we can see today.

tanita: Ralph Lazo was hardcore. Now I have to go and research him – I imagine he must’ve been quite a guy, just living by his gut and by his principles. The book’s little historical details are just what MAKES it for me – you can read it over again and find new details.

sarah: While this looks like a middle grade textbook, it has a lot of scope as a book to engage adults as well… but who’s the target audience for this series in particular?

Laura: We were thinking of a fourth grade audience since that is when young people study California history in this state. I think it works solidly up through the end of middle school, and maybe could work in a high school with people reading below age level. Really, it’s middle grade.

sarah: And, what, to you, is the single most important takeaway from Fred’s story?

Laura: We can look to Fred Korematsu’s story to see that any one of us can speak up and make a difference. Speaking up can mean protesting and speaking out publicly. It can also mean creating art, as many people did in the prison camps, and some of which we include in the book. People can sing, write, be allies to their friends. Any ordinary person can be part of changing the world and making it more equitable and fair for everyone.

tanita: And taking this to be a part of a social studies curricula in elementary school makes that idea accessible earlier. I like that.

So, what’s next for this series? Will you be involved, either as author or editor?

Laura: The next book will be about Biddy Mason, an enslaved woman who won her freedom through the courts in Los Angeles. She went on to save money she made as a midwife and doctor’s assistant, buy property, and become wealthy. She used her money to support the community, including helping to establish the first AME Church in Los Angeles and paying for groceries for people displaced by flooding.

Stan decided to step back after the first book. He’s got other books he wants to focus on and felt that his expertise was more directly related to the Fred Korematsu story. So with Heyday, we decided to have me go forward as project manager, and to find a different coauthor for each book whose lived experience connects to the story being told. I’ve been working with Arisa White, a queer Black woman poet in Oakland who has written for adults. We are honing the biography as we speak, and finding out ways to collaborate on the project. It’s challenging and also so exciting. The Biddy Mason book brings very different challenges from the Fred Korematsu one, and we are learning how to co-write as we go along. It feels so important right now to have first voice writing, and for publishers to be transparent about the process. I love that Heyday was open to taking this more risky and unknown path. And that we are exploring more collaborative ways to talk about our nation’s very troubled history, especially when it comes to telling stories, power and voice. More important now than ever. Watch this space…

tanita: WHOA. I can’t even tell you how excited i am about Biddy Mason. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about her, but I’d heard tangentially of her in reference to her work with the AME. Wow, this is going to be so great! Laura, we’re so glad you came to share your project with us, and that you’re roaring forth after your MFA project with such power! You’re doing amazing work.

sarah: This is fantastic, Laura! Thank you so much, and Happy Book Birthday!!

Bay Area peeps might just catch up with Tanita and Laura at the free and open to the public Fighting For Justice FRED KORAMATSU SPEAKS UP book launch celebration on Sat, February 4, 2017 2:00 PM – 4:00 PM PST at J-Sei in Emeryville. Click to find out details, come buy a book, and talk to the authors!

About the author

tanita s. davis is a writer and avid reader who prefers books to most things in the world, including people. That's ...pretty much it, she's very boring and she can't even tell jokes. She is, however, the author of eight books, including Serena Says, Partly Cloudy, and the Coretta Scott King honored Mare's War. Look for the new MG, Go Figure, Henri Weldon in 9/2022 from Katherine Tegen Books.

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