Awhile back, I read a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me, which discusses the many omissions and glorifications in the way history is taught in American public schools. I went through Virginia public schools in the 1980s and 1990s, and my teachers most certainly didn’t teach us anything about Japanese Internment Camps in the USA. It’s one of many dark spots on our history, and I’m sad to say that They Called Us Enemy–a graphic novel from a Star Trek actor–gave more information about the internment camps than any history class I’ve ever taken.
AUTHOR: George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott
ILLUSTRATOR: Harmony Becker
PUBLISHER: Top Shelf Productions
PUBLICATION DATE: July 16, 2019
GENRE: graphic novel; memoir
SETTING: USA (California, Arkansas), 1941-present
GIVE IT TO: MS, HS, adults
In early 1942, weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the US military rounded up young George Takei, his family, and thousands of others of Japanese descent. The soldiers loaded them onto trains, carrying them thousands of miles away to one of 10 Japanese internment camps. They Called Us Enemy is George’s story, both then and now.
THE SHORT VERSION
A must for any middle and high school library. I’m conflicted on buying this for elementary libraries since the subject matter may be difficult for them to understand. On the other hand, Japanese-American students–even the young ones–deserve to know their history, and they are unlikely to hear about this in their history lessons.
WHAT I LIKED
First and foremost, I love that They Called Us Enemy brings awareness to the Japanese Internment Camps and what life was like on the inside.
I love that Takei tells the story from his perspective as a child, a young adult, and as an older adult. His perspective as a child is especially interesting as young George (age 4) initially saw the internment as a fun vacation, and while times were hard, George’s parents both did all they could to keep their children safe and happy. I love that George’s mother smuggles in a contraband sewing machine and uses it to make curtains and clothing for the children. And George’s dad became a community activist inside both camps they lived in. George’s parents are everyday heroes, and George does a great job immortalizing them in this memoir.
I didn’t know that the surviving the Japanese prisoners were awarded reparations in 1988. This is absolutely appropriate in their situation, though $20,000 each over nearly 50 years later awarded only to surviving detainees is clearly too little, too late. It also makes me think about reparations for African-Americans. If awarding reparations for Japanese camps is appropriate (it is), then we most certainly should get serious about reparations to African-Americans for centuries of forced slavery, and at the very least for nearly a century of slavery as an independent nation. A contentious issue for sure, but I see no difference in the two except that slavery went on for far longer and was far more harmful.
They Called Us Enemy pairs well with today’s headlines about refugees from Mexico and Central America and all the talk of building a wall.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
I really enjoyed They Called Us Enemy, but I think it may require some book talking with students. Many middle and high school students know nothing about forced Japanese incarceration after Pearl Harbor. A short book talk about Japanese internment and why it happened may inspire students to learn more about it. Star Trek fans will certainly want to read it but may not know that the little boy on the front cover is George Takei.
Illustrations are black and white. Facial expressions convey emotions and sounds, particularly the sounds of the trains and crying children.
LIBRARIANS WILL WANT TO KNOW:
Themes: Japanese internment camps, Pearl Harbor, WWII, family, perseverance, reparations, prejudice, fear, legalized incarceration
Would adults like this book? yes; Titlewave actually recommends an adult audience, but I disagree with limiting this to adults. I think YA and even Grades 5-8 are both fine. For the record, SLJ recommends Grades 7+.
Would I buy this for my high school library? yes, no reservations
Would I buy this for my middle school library? yes, no reservations
Would I buy this for my elementary school library? Maybe. It would really depend on my students. There is some violence (fighting and forced arrests) and a joke about the words “son of a bitch,” but neither of those bother me so much. The problem with elementary is that the concept may be a bit over the heads of most elementary students. I do think more mature fifth graders–especially those who had family members in the camps–will understand it just fine.
WHAT DO LIBRARIANS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THEY CALLED US ENEMY?
Language: mild; a joke about the phrase “son of a bitch” pops up a couple of times
Violence: mild-medium; several fighting scenes between guards and Japanese inmates; guns and barbed wire are used as threats and to control people, but no one is shot in the book.
BOOKTALK OR DISPLAY THIS WITH:
Do you have They Called Us Enemy in your library?
Is it popular with your students? Would you put it in your elementary library?