By Marta Yamamoto
BERKELEY — Fred Korematsu fought against discrimination and challenged the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
He knew that what the U.S. government was doing was unfair and when he was put in jail for resisting, he didn’t give up. Korematsu, who died in 2005, remains a hero and role model for those many who value civil liberties, and his life encourages others to speak up for justice.
In “Fred Korematsu Speaks Up,” authors Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi have chosen to tell Korematsu’s story for the first book in the new “Fighting for Justice” series. Written for children ages 8 through 12, the book explores his life and its relevance today.
The book is scheduled for a Feb. 4 launch at the J-Sei center, 1285 66th St. in Emeryville. The book release is set to coincide with Monday’s annual Fred Korematsu Day (his birthday) and the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 — on Feb. 19, 1942 — which set into motion the mass incarceration of about 120,000 Japanese Americans.
Inspired by “Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California,” written by Stan Yogi and Elaine Elinson, the book aims to introduce young readers to real-life heroes and heroines of social progress.
Atkins is a Berkeley author, teacher and independent children’s book editor with a focus on diversity and equity, while Yogi managed development programs for the ACLU of Northern California before moving to Los Angeles.
The idea for the book and series came from Malcolm Margolin, founder and former publisher of Heyday, publishers of the book and series, who thought it would be a good idea to have a children’s version of “Wherever There’s a Fight.”
The selection of Korematsu was personal to Yogi.
“Fred Korematsu is one of my heroes,” Yogi said. “I really feel his courage and his persistence, his vision of justice are all qualities I think others would find inspiring as well and the political context in which this book is being released is unfortunately very relevant to Fred’s story.”
The authors formatted the book so children could access it in different ways. Korematsu’s biography is written in free verse with short lines and space on the page, so as not to intimidate reluctant readers.
“We wanted to really focus on the emotional experience so children can kind of walk in his shoes,” Atkins said. “So we decided to start with the haircut — going to get a haircut and being told we don’t cut your hair here — thinking that was the kind of experience kids could have today.”
Insets within the book extend and define subjects brought out in the biography, terms are defined and a timeline establishes context. The authors looked for photographs, art and drawings in color, striving for the feel of an engaging graphic novel.
Questions aim at getting kids to look at their own lives, and an activist spread gives kids tips about how they can get involved. While teachers and librarians are expected to be the primary market, there is hope that people will buy it for their homes. The current political climate seems ripe for Korematsu’s story.
“People have been coming out recently, looking back at Japanese American incarceration and saying that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing, so it feels important to have a book that tells Fred Korematsu’s story and talks about Japanese-American incarceration but also relates the government lying to the Supreme Court about the military necessity,” Atkins said.
Yogi related the relevance of Korematsu’s story to recent proposals to ban Muslim immigration and create a Muslim registry.
“It’s another example of the government targeting a specific group of people, an unpopular minority of people, at a time of political crisis and blanketly treating them all the same, regardless of individual actions,” he said. “So the parallels are pretty clear.”
Both hope children will find inspiration from Korematsu’s story, that it will help them broaden their sense of what injustice is and give them the courage to speak up against it.
The book launch on Feb. 4 will be a family friendly event for children and anyone who wants to attend. There will be activities for children that are related to the book and art activities led by the illustrator Yukata Houlette. The authors will be there, as will Karen Korematsu, Fred’s daughter and director of the Korematsu Institute.
“As part of the launch, we’ll also be supporting Friends of the Oakland Public School Libraries so people can buy books and donate them to the Oakland schools,” Atkins said.
Future plans for the “Fighting for Justice” series call for one book a year. Atkins will stay on as project manager and co-author with the other co-author chosen as someone whose life experiences match the subject of the book.
Coming out in 2018 will be the story of Biddy Mason, an enslaved African woman who won her freedom in Los Angeles and became a philanthropist. It’s being co-written by Arissa White, an African-American Oakland poet.
What: Book launch for “Fred Korematsu Speaks Up” by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi
When: 2 to 4 p.m. Feb. 4
Where: J-Sei, 1285 66th St., Emeryville; free and open to the public.
Information: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/fred-korematsu-speaks-up-book-launch-tickets-30106809277? aff=es2