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A Powerful Story For Our Time


“Fred Korematsu Speaks Up”

Reviewed for Multiculltural Children’s Book Day 2017


Fred Korematsu was a young Japanese American who defied President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 order that sent citizens and legal immigrants of Japanese origin to internment camps. Jailed and convicted as a result, Fred offered his case to human rights attorneys who appealed all the way to the Supreme Court … and lost. When new documents surfaced 40 years later, Fred agreed for Korematsu v. United States to be reopened, and this time he won, establishing new legal barriers against mass internment in America – against “putting people behind barbed wire just because they looked like the enemy.”

“Fred Korematsu Speaks Up” is an absolute gem of a book, and is as relevant now as at any moment in U.S. history. This book, by authors Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi and illustrator Yutaka Houlette, published by Heyday, deserves a starring place in every library and school classroom.  Kids will be drawn into the human story of its quiet young protagonist, and will discover there a wealth of information about very big topics of human rights, immigration, discrimination, and civic responsibility.

Nothing could be more timely!

“Fred Korematsu Speaks Up” is really two books, skillfully interwoven but each with its own distinctive voice and look. One is Fred’s own powerful and moving story, and the other is a fantastic reference book in which every young reader will discover fascinating and thought-provoking background information.

First there is the story of Fred’s life as the son of hardworking immigrant parents, told simply but beautifully in an extended prose poem, and illustrated in a soft and somber graphic-novel style.

Here’s a passage that gently and skillfully conveys both the society’s hurtful rejection of immigrant culture but also Fred’s own embrace of a new American identity.

Born in 1919, Fred comes third.
His parents name him Toyosaburo.

His first-grade teacher
can’t get her tongue around
the Japanese sounds.

How would you like to be called Fred?
she asks.

He takes to this new name, and it sticks.

A later set of verses, one of my favorites, powerfully describes Fred’s personal rebellion against the President’s order sending Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans into internment camps:

Fred changes his name to Clyde Sarah
and says he is Spanish Hawaiian.
He is able to hide in front of everyone
because people can’t always tell
someone is Japanese American.

He feels strangely free –
living on his own, dating Ida,
riding on buses, going to the movies.

But this feeling shatters
when he looks at newspapers.
Headlines scream: Jap this and Jap that.
He will not buy those ugly words.

Fred is eventually found out and convicted of breaking the law, and his high-profile appeal, controversial within the Japanese American community, ultimately loses in a 6-3 Supreme Court ruling. Angry but resigned, Fred settles down to a quiet, hardworking life. Years later, his daughter learns about Korematsu v. United States in school, and is shocked to discover that this is her father.

…Karen asks him about the case.

He tells her that it happened long ago.
The United States Supreme Court ruled against him,
but he believes he did the right thing.

Karen can see that he has
a hard time telling her
even this little bit.

The lines run long and stately when Fred talks about the official court decision and his principles, while the short halting phrases at the end convey deeply buried hurt.  Things are not simple, the poetic narrative tells us again and again, but we cannot run away.

Every reader will cheer for Fred when he agrees to take his case back to court in 1983, and wins. We are filled with pride when he is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.

Fred’s story is powerful all by itself, but also packed into this wonderful book is a fascinating and highly accessible reference for young people, with text supplemented by photographs, primary documents and a continuous timeline. A very different graphic-novel style, vivid and punchy, highlights these sections.

It’s clear that the authors and illustrator wanted to make this book accessible to a broad age span, and they have succeeded – I would recommend it for kids 9-15.

For upper-elementary children just beginning to think about these big issues, “Fred Korematsu Speaks Up” steers them with gentle speech-bubble questions: “Why do you think discrimination happens?” and “If you failed at something, have you ever taken a big risk to try again?”

And among the many excellent reference tools in this book are the bright red sidebars with clear but simple definitions of key terms, from “citizen,” “court,” and “judge,” to “barracks,” “government misconduct,” and “terrorist.”

But for older kids there is also a wealth of detailed background information, for example on laws that prohibited first-generation immigrants from Japan and China from ever becoming naturalized citizens – and threatened worse. Reading this book, I learned for the first time about Wong Kim Ark, whose eventual victory in an 1898 Supreme Court case confirmed the Constitutional right to citizenship of everyone born in this country.

Parents and teachers will particularly like the way “Fred Korematsu Speaks Up” touches in passing on a whole range of issues that have affected many Americans, not just Fred: laws against interracial marriage that did not disappear until 1967; the economic impact of felony conviction; the use of false information to justify government policies; lack of legal protection for migrant and immigrant farmworkers; and the power of learning the immigration stories of our own families.

This book is guaranteed to prompt discussion in any number of important directions, but its essence is clear: “Sometimes people treat one another badly. Sometimes rules and laws are unfair. It can take one brave person, or a group of people acting together, to speak up and make a difference.”

There is so much more to be said about this extraordinary, must-read book, but you will have to buy a copy or borrow it from you local library to see for yourself. Please run, don’t walk, to do so!


Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 (1/27/17) is its fourth year and was founded by Valarie Budayr from Jump Into A Book and Mia Wenjen from PragmaticMom. Our mission is to raise awareness on the ongoing need to include kid’s books that celebrate diversity in home and school bookshelves while also working diligently to get more of these types of books into the hands of young readers, parents and educators.

Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Using the Multicultural Children’s Book Day holiday, the MCBD Team are on a mission to change all of that.

Current Sponsors:  MCBD 2017 is honored to have some amazing Sponsors on board. Platinum Sponsors include ScholasticBarefoot Books and Broccoli. Other Medallion Level Sponsors include heavy-hitters like Author Carole P. RomanAudrey Press, Candlewick Press,  Fathers Incorporated, KidLitTVCapstone Young Readers, ChildsPlayUsa, Author Gayle SwiftWisdom Tales PressLee& Low BooksThe Pack-n-Go GirlsLive Oak MediaAuthor Charlotte Riggle, Chronicle Books and Pomelo Books

Author Sponsors include: Karen Leggett AbourayaVeronica AppletonSusan Bernardo, Kathleen BurkinshawMaria DismondyD.G. DriverGeoff Griffin Savannah HendricksStephen HodgesCarmen Bernier-Grand,Vahid ImaniGwen Jackson,  Hena, Kahn, David Kelly, Mariana LlanosNatasha Moulton-LevyTeddy O’MalleyStacy McAnulty,  Cerece MurphyMiranda PaulAnnette PimentelGreg RansomSandra Richards, Elsa TakaokaGraciela Tiscareño-Sato,  Sarah Stevenson, Monica Mathis-Stowe SmartChoiceNation, Andrea Y. Wang

We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also work tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHosts HERE.


MCBD Links to remember:

MCBD site:

Free Multicultural Books for Teachers:

Free Kindness Classroom Kit for Homeschoolers, Organizations, Librarians and Educators:

Free Diversity Book Lists and Activities for Teachers and Parents: