It’s December 1941. The world is in turmoil as World War II continues, but America has yet to enter the fray. Koji Miyamoto, a young half white/half Japanese boy, lives in San Francisco with his white mother in relative peace, while his father is in Japan taking care of an ailing relative. And then Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, forcing America to enter the war. To protect their homeland, the United States declares that all Japanese are to be sent to internment camps. Life as they knew it is over. Friends and neighbors turn on them. Koji has it worse, being half white; now even some of the Japanese look upon him with disdain. How will Koji survive?
Gaijin, which means outsider, is based upon a fictionalized account of Matt Faulkner’s great aunt. She traveled to Japan as a singer, fell in love, and married a Japanese man. And, much like Koji, upon returning to the States she and her children were sent to internment camps where they faced additional prejudices for being of mixed race. Knowing why Faulkner chose to create this story adds a greater depth to the tale, allowing readers to better understand what is occurring and why. Unfortunately, the reader is not told this until the very end, and this, along with several other issues with the story, presents some challenges for me.
The biggest struggle with Gaijin is that it introduces an overwhelming number of concepts at one time, many of which could, and probably should, have their own story. While older readers have the background knowledge to at least begin to understand what is occurring, younger readers are going to struggle with some of the concepts being introduced. For example, the story brings up that Koji’s mom is being called the camp floozy, and one particularly vivid dream shows all of the camp kissing his mom.This heavy concept, paired with younger readers trying to figure out why people hated those of a different culture and what World War II is, makes it overwhelming. Not to mention the fact that Koji is also dealing with an absent father, being bullied for being mixed race, and being uprooted from home. It’s a lot for any reader to absorb, but younger readers in particular will likely be overwhelmed and need additional guidance with understanding the story.
I do have to say that the illustrations are eye-catching and beautiful. Faulkner has an almost painterly quality to his work, which captures the vivid emotions and dreams that Koji has throughout the story. The characters are also beautifully rendered and we get a good sense of how they move about the page and with each other. The only trouble is that Faulkner’s work is so gorgeous and beautiful, it seems as if dirt and ugliness cannot be portrayed. For example, it feels as if Mr. Asai’s tenant is supposed to be ugly, capturing the hatred and prejudice he has for the Japanese. Instead, while he seems unshaven, he looks as if he could quickly put on a uniform and be a typical GI from the time period. This is also a problem in the internment camp, which, while not blooming with flowers and trees, does not look as run down and dirty as these camps really were. As such, it introduces another aspect that will need additional guidance to explain. Another aspect that was distracting was the lettering, which is a heavy font and takes up too much of the page. It feels like the word balloons are going to rip out of the page and fall onto our feet, as heavy as they are.
While this book is an important one for the World War II genre, it cannot serve as a standalone book and must be paired with others to help better explain the concept of internment camps and racial prejudice. In addition, educators should be prepared to offer additional teaching or guidance in case students have questions about some of the themes that occur. This should not discourage people from reading the book, but teachers and parents should prepare for questions that may arise.
Gaijin: American Prisoner of War
by Matt Faulkner
Disney Hyperion, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12