The Q&A for the January edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with author Cynthia Grady and illustrator Amiko Hirao, creators of the new nonfiction picture book Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind (Charlesbridge).
Write to Me is a true — and all-too-relevant — account of the correspondence between California librarian Clara Breed and the young patrons who were displaced when their families were imprisoned during World War II. The book immediately brought to my mind the recent rise in the United States of openly expressed xenophobia and the dubious constitutionality of government actions that have been taken in that spirit.
A starred review from Booklist notes that, “The personal story … is full of warmth emanating from Hirao’s radiant, softly shaded color-pencil artwork, from Miss Breed’s relationship with the children, and from the actual quotes from their notes, appearing on small postcards superimposed on the illustrations. A beautiful picture book for sharing and discussing with older children as well as the primary audience.”
I’m giving away one copy of Write to Me. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on January 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.
In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Cynthia Grady and Amiko Hirao.
Chris: Write to Me feels especially timely, but I know that this book has been in the works for a long while. What can you each tell me about your interest in and history with this story — and about your dedication to getting it told and getting it right?
Cynthia: I first learned of Clara Breed — and the children she served in her San Diego library — in 2002. The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles had created a video documentary about her, and I had read an intriguing review of it.
There is a long and rich history of librarians as advocates for intellectual freedom and social justice, and as effective agents of change. I strongly believe in literature’s ability to dissolve the socially constructed barriers [that some people] are so intent on creating. I wanted to learn more about this Clara Breed.
I was a new middle school librarian in Washington, DC, at the time. I scoured the local public library catalogs, the university libraries, and finally California libraries. I couldn’t find any books written about this amazing woman at all, though I did find a book she had written and a few magazine and newspaper articles by her.
So, I took the advice to heart that many established writers and editors give at conferences: “Write the book that you want to read.”
I had lived most of my life in California and was very familiar with the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, but I had never heard of Clara Breed. I spent the next three years researching the war and the incarceration of Japanese Americans, and I finally spent a week in Los Angeles, reading the letters that the children and teens from San Diego had written to their librarian during the three and half years they were imprisoned.
As I finished my first draft of the manuscript in 2005, I emailed a former library professor to tell her what I was working on, and she said, “You have to read this book!” She had in her hands an advanced copy of a book called Dear Miss Breed, written by Joanne Oppenheim. A detailed, fascinating book for older readers about Clara Breed, the children she knew, and the propaganda of World War II.
I was devastated.
But I thought there was still a place for the same story to be told for a younger audience. I sent my manuscript out to many, many publishers over the years and finally sold it in 2015 to Charlesbridge. It took ten years. Then another year of revisions with my editor, which was most rewarding. During those ten years I kept writing. I published numerous poems and essays, and two books before Write to Me made its entrance.
I’m so pleased with the work Amiko has done to bring the story to visual life, and I’m glad Write to Me is finally here. But yes, it is indeed, timely.
Amiko: Thank you so much for the interest in this book. And to Cynthia, I really enjoyed reading your story and it was a great honor to have taken part in this project.
I was struck by the simplicity of Cynthia’s manuscript when I first read it. The story is a great way to communicate what happened in that particular time and place, and to tell the story of this outstanding lady, Ms. Clara Breed.
It is very interesting to read about the librarians in America. I have personal memories of growing up in [Japan and the United States] and going to elementary school in both nations — and the very cozy libraries in the American schools really struck me.
The very enthusiastic librarians had every trick to get us interested in this book or that. In the Japanese school there was no librarian. Just books (and some attendee to sign books in and out).
I do have an interest in World War II history, but as the narrative of war is so vast and complex I do not think it is possible to hope for history to be told in the “right” way.
Cynthia’s restrained prose does great justice to the story of Ms. Clara Breed and to telling the story of World War II.
(I can only hope I was able to match that even halfway…)
Chris: Were either of you letter-writers when you were the age of the children in Write to Me — and if so, is there a particular correspondent or recipient of your childhood letters that comes to mind?
Amiko: I was not much of a letter writer but I did make drawings to correspond with friends in Japan and US every time I moved to each country.
That was actually what surprised me about the letters — that they had only handwriting — and I thought perhaps people were more formal then.
So in a way working on the drawings to go with these letters did feel like a natural thing for me to be working on. I wondered about if the kids wanted to draw on these cards, too.
But in retrospect I probably still wrote many more physical letters than if I was in the same situation as a child today, with email available.
Cynthia: I remember writing letters to my grandmother when I was quite young. This is my earliest memory of writing at all. I have a few of those letters that she had kept and that my mother had given to me some years later. They are hilarious! In one, I thought I was writing to her in cursive, and it is just row after row of loops! Why she kept that one is a mystery. :)
Sometimes my grandmother put a dollar bill in her letters to me, which seemed like a tremendous amount of money then. And she often gave me stationery for my birthday, which made letter writing even more fun. My mom followed in that tradition — in a way — not with stationery, but with postage stamps. Every Christmas, for as long as I can remember, we found stamps in our stockings.
I still love to write letters, but don’t do it as much as I wish, and I love to receive them, too. Such a novelty anymore, as Amiko mentioned, with email and everything else.