Gaijin: American Prisoner of War written and illustrated by Matt Faulkner

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gaijin coverGaijin: American Prisoner of War written and illustrated by Matt Faulkner
Disney Hyperion, 2014

This graphic novel, inspired by the author’s family, is a hard-hitting introduction to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Koji Miyamoto turns 13 on December 7, 1941 – the day that Japanese fighter planes attacked Pearl Harbor. Eventually Koji is sent to a “relocation camp” accompanied by his Caucasian mother. Having faced abuse and prejudice from white Americans in his hometown of San Francisco, he now faces the same from a gang of young Japanese men in the camp who call him “gaijin” (foreigner). Haunted by dreams of his absent father, Koji rebels and joins the gang in an attempt to escape the camp.

This is a good first stop for middle graders interested in the controversial topic of the effective imprisonment of thousands of Japanese Americans, though it lacks the weight for a high school read. It shows the speed and inequity of how the process was managed – people lost their possessions, their homes and their businesses – but also the stoicism and dignity with which many Japanese Americans faced it. However, the story only covers the first few months, when Koji and his mother are put into a holding camp; it ends when they are being transported to Camp Agua Dulce, a stand-in for the Manzanar Camp.gaijin inside

The narrative is short and unadorned, but is greatly expanded by the painterly illustrations. The large, often full page, panels, in earthy ochres with muted blues accents, are filled with distinctly drawn people, with often caricature-ish features. Koji’s dreams of his father burn bright with reds and greens, and break through the limits of the panels.

The author includes his family story in the backmatter, as well as some selected resources for further information. Interested middle grade readers might want to look at nonfiction accounts including Remembering Manzanar by Michael L. Cooper (Clarion, 2002) and the anthology Only What We Could Carry (Heyday, 2000).

 

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