Gaijin: American Prisoner of War by Matt Faulkner
Disney-Hyperion, 2014. 978-1423137351
Winner of the 2014 Asian/Pacific American Award for Young Adult Literature
Synopsis: Koji, the son of a Japanese father and an American mother, suddenly finds his world turned upside down when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Because he is of Japanese descent, he and other Japanese Americans must be taken away from their homes and sequestered like criminals. Accompanied by his mother, Koji learns quickly that the camps are not what they seem, and that being different may cause him more harm than good.
Why I picked it up: A library colleague turned me on to this book a few years ago and it’s been sitting on my shelf waiting for the opportune moment for me to rediscover it.
Why I finished it: It’s necessary to read about ugliness in this world so that we can remember the mistakes of the past and take steps to never repeat them. Faulker’s graphic novel about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is both gritty and powerful, and on the 75th Anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombings, it is a reminder of one of many dark times in American History. My own grandfather has spoken of a young man who was sent to an internment camp that he has often wondered about since the end of the war. Faulkner notes multiple times throughout the book that the majority of those that were sent to these camps were children, something I don’t know that I thought very much about until I read this story. At its heart, this is the story of a family trying to make sense of the senseless actions that seem to be transpiring around them. They don’t fully grasp the prejudices that have become suddenly more apparent with their friends and neighbors. In a country that prides itself on giving its citizens a voice, they suddenly have none. Even thought Koji’s mother is trying to make the best of things, Koji is still angry and confused. The reader witnesses him lashing out in ways that feel like they make sense to the teenager, but we also slowly see an understanding dawning as the story moves on. It’s as if he has realized that there is something else to fight for, that he has every right to be angry, but that his anger needs to be fueled into doing good rather than creating havoc. Faulkner’s unspoken commentary about the experiences of Japanese-Americans speaks volumes and the invisible voices of those who were interred give power to the narrative. The art is a cross between a classic WWII-era newspaper strip and a kaiga (Japanese painting), mixing the art of East and West to add another layer of symbolism to the novel. Koji’s dreams seem to take on mostly red hues, which Eastern cultures associate with luck and power; the rest of the book is drawn in browns, blacks, and sepias, emphasizing a sort of depression and darkness that overtook the country as a result of the internment. It’s a powerful graphic novel that bears its teeth and screams with a rage that will have readers remembering it even after they have closed the book.
Other related materials: Take What You Can Carry by Kevin C. Pyle; The Moved-Outers by Florence Crannell Means; Farwell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston; Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference by Joanne Oppenheim; Remembering Manzanar: Life in a Japanese Relocation Camp by Michael L. Cooper; The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559, Mirror Lake Internment Camp (My Name is America series) by Barry Denenberg; Early Sunday Morning: The Pearl Harbor Diary of Amber Billows, Hawaii 1941 (Dear America series) by Barry Denenberg; Journey to Topaz: A Story of the Japanese-American Evacuation by Yoshiko Ushida, illustrated by Donald Carrick; Journey Home by Yoshiko Ushida, illustrated by Charles Robinson; The Invisible Thread by Yoshiko Uchida; Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban; A Diamond in the Desert by Kathryn Fitzmaurice; Mystery at Manzanar: A WWII Internment Camp Story by Eric Fein, illustrated by Kurt Hartman; A Place Where Sunflowers Grow by Amy Lee-Tai, illustrated by Felicia Hoshino