12 Books About the Japanese-American Incarceration for Middle Grade and High School Readers

For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we offer this list of nonfiction and fiction titles to commemorate the lives of the thousands of people of Japanese descent who were impacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, which forcibly relocated them into concentration camps.

It’s been a little over 80 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcibly relocating all Japanese immigrants and their descendants into concentration camps after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Many of the prisoners were American citizens. These nonfiction and fiction titles will illuminate the injustices they endured and shine a light on their resilience to survive this betrayal.


Fiction book covers

We Are Not Free by Traci Chee. HMH. ISBN 9780358131434.
Gr 7 Up–Fourteen teens form a bond growing up together in California. They go to school, work hard to be good kids in their community, and try their best to find happiness in various hobbies. American-born, they are of Japanese descent, and surrounded by people who do not trust their right to be in the United States. World War II turns their already strained lives upside down. Taken and forced into desolate incarceration camps, these young kids must rally together as racism threatens to tear them apart. This novel evokes powerful emotions by using a variety of well-researched elements to tell the teens’ stories, creating a thorough picture of their thoughts and feelings through poetry, diary-style entries, and drawings. The novel may be fiction, but it will be hard for readers not to fall deep into the harsh realities these teens face. 

This Light Between Us: A Novel of World War II by Andrew Fukuda. Tor Teen. ISBN 9781250192387.
Gr 7 Up–It is 1935 and Alex Maki is excited to start writing to his new French pen pal, Charlie Lévy, until he finds out Charlie is a girl. But the assignments have already been made, and so Alex and Charlie are stuck with each other. Six years later, they’re still writing, though so much has changed. Japan has bombed Pearl Harbor, and suddenly everyone in Alex’s close-knit community in Washington State distrusts his Japanese American family, even though he and his brother have never set foot in Japan. Charlie, meanwhile, is still in Paris, but it’s a Paris no longer friendly to Jews. Then Alex and his family are taken away to a camp, and Charlie stops responding to his letters. While this is a story about Alex and his friendship with Charlie, it transcends the two to tackle larger questions of racism and state-sponsored violence. This one adds an important perspective to World War II fiction.

A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy. ISBN 9781481446648.
Gr 5 Up—World War II has ended, and 12-year-old Hanako, her five-year-old brother Akira, and their American-born parents have spent the past four years imprisoned in a series of incarceration camps. Hana's parents accept an offer from the U.S. government to renounce their American citizenship and expatriate to Japan. Their plan is to live with Hanako's father's parents, poor tenant farmers outside the city of Hiroshima. Hanako is hopeful for her family's new chance in Japan and immediately loves her Jiichan and Baachan but is faced with the realities of life in an unfamiliar, war-blighted country. Resources are scarce; as her family toils endlessly to keep food in the house, Hanako is torn between providing for her family and sharing what little she has with the people she encounters around Hiroshima. In her trademark style, Kadohata unfurls the complex web of the girl's inner thoughts in a concise yet cutting third-person narrative.

Love in the Library by Maggie Tokuda-Hall. illus. by Yas Imamura. Candlewick. ISBN 9781536204308.
Gr 1-4–Based on true events, a gentle story about finding love and hope in a Japanese incarceration camp. After being relocated to Minidoka, a prison camp in Idaho, Tama takes a job in the camp’s library. She loves books and notes that the justice championed in her favorite stories is in stark contrast to her new life of senseless captivity. Enter George. He visits the library every day but never reads a word. He waits patiently for Tama to realize that he loves her. When Tama finally sees what George truly holds “close to his heart,” the two are married and soon are a family of three. Tokuda-Hall shares the message that love is a miracle and can grow in the most unlikely of places. She ends the story with her grandmother’s own words, “The miracle is in all of us.” This lovely, inspiring story unfolds in Imamura’s muted art, cushioning the harsh reality of how Japanese Americans were treated during World War II. In the back matter, Tokuda-Hall recounts the true story of how her maternal grandmother and grandfather met in an incarceration camp in the 1940s and writes a stirring and heartbreaking paragraph about "the deeply American tradition of racism.” 


[READ: Interview: Susan H. Kamei on “When Can We Go Back to America?” ]



Nonfiction book covers part 1 (four covers)
Days of Infamy: How a Century of Bigotry Led to Japanese American Internment by Lawrence Goldstone. Scholastic Focus. ISBN 9781338722468. 
Gr 6 Up–A shameful chapter of American history is put under the microscope in this well-researched examination of the policies, laws, and attitudes that led to Franklin D. Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066. Decades of accumulated anti-Asian rhetoric made Executive Order 9066 possible, with the order sending thousands of people of Japanese descent into military-patrolled concentration camps where they had little privacy, few possessions, and no access to their property or businesses. The detailed narrative shows the building snowball of resentment careening toward Asian Americans. Goldstone also matter-of-factly discusses the importance of accurate language—he calls the bigoted anti-Asian white supremacists and describes the incarceration facilities as concentration camps—always defining the terms and explaining to readers why it is both accurate and important to do so. 

When Can We Go Back to America?: Voices of Japanese American Incarceration During WWII by Susan H Kamei. S. & S. ISBN 9781481401449.
Gr 9 Up–This is a narrative history of Japanese Americans, beginning with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, leading to Executive Order 9066, and ending with a chapter on the allyship of Japanese Americans with other marginalized communities facing government-sanctioned prejudice, such as the Muslim American community after September 11th and under the Trump administration. Interspersed throughout are personal accounts of the atrocities faced by incarcerated Japanese Americans and the long-term impact of the government’s actions. These testaments provide a complete look at the range of experiences, from being ordered to leave their homes to family separation, life in the camps, exceptional military service, the landmark civil rights cases, and much more. Filled with over 100 alphabetically organized detailed biographies of those who shared their experiences, Kamei’s narrative nonfiction work dives deeply into what it means to be American, then, and always. A comprehensive and engaging history of Japanese incarceration during and beyond WWII.

Michi Challenges History: From Farm Girl to Costume Designer to Relentless Seeker of the Truth: The Life of Michi Nishiura Weglyn by Ken Mochizuki. Norton. ISBN 9781324015888.
Gr 7 Up–Mochizuki presents a biography of Michi Nishiura Weglyn, whose fight for justice and acknowledgment of wartime wrongs against Japanese American citizens demonstrates what one motivated individual can achieve in the name of right. The daughter of Japanese immigrants who worked as farmers in California, Weglyn and her family were confined in the Gila River, AZ, incarceration camp after Pearl Harbor. Weglyn received a full scholarship to Mount Holyoke, where she discovered her passion for art, fashion, and design. After a difficult round with tuberculosis, she focused on costume design and switched her studies to the Fashion Academy of New York. Mochizuki skillfully describes how Weglyn’s passion for justice and honesty led to her writing Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps in response to Attorney General Ramsey Clark’s 1968 assertion that America had never had concentration camps. Mochizuki utilizes numerous primary sources to make Weglyn’s remarkable life come alive for readers. 

Seen and Unseen: What Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, and Ansel Adams’s Photographs Reveal About the Japanese American Incarceration by Elizabeth Partridge. illus. by Lauren Tamaki. Chronicle. ISBN 9781452165103.
Gr 5 Up–Art reflects the harsh realities of life in this emotional look at the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, filtered through the lenses of three very different photographers. The War Relocation Authority commissioned photographer Dorothea Lange to capture images of the incarceration to prove the process was being done ethically. Lange used her camera to show the absurdity of calling these average Americans “threats.” Toyo Miyatake, himself a Manzanar prisoner, used a secretly constructed camera to take candid shots of the bleak facilities, but also of the supportive community that surrounded him. Ansel Adams had not opposed the incarceration, but by the end of the war felt that loyal citizens should be welcomed back to society. Tamaki’s gorgeous black, white, and red illustrations work in tandem with Lange, Miyatake, and Adams’s photographs to paint a devastatingly beautiful picture of the injustice of the incarceration and the right to humane treatment, which they were denied. Coupled with Partridge’s simple, perfect writing, this is a work that will haunt readers. 


[READ: “We Are Better Than This” | SLJ Talks to George Takei]
Nonfiction book covers part 2 (four more covers)

Peace Is a Chain Reaction: How World War II Japanese Balloon Bombs Brought People of Two Nations Together by Tanya Lee Stone. Candlewick. ISBN 9780763676865.
Gr 4-6–In this narrative nonfiction book, three stories about the events surrounding the war in the Pacific are expertly woven together. When the United States dropped bombs on Japan, the Japanese retaliated by creating giant balloon bombs, 33 feet in diameter. Only 300 bombs were found in North America (one as recently as 2019): one had devastating consequences. Six civilians were on their way to a picnic in Oregon and discovered one of the bombs and inadvertently set it off, killing everyone in the immediate area. This book describes events from the perspective of the victims and survivors of the balloon bomb in Oregon, the schoolgirls who made the bombs in Japan, and a young Japanese American’s experience in an incarceration camp. A compelling narrative of peace and war—but most importantly, redemption.

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, George, Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott. illus. by Harmony Becker. Top Shelf. ISBN 9781603094504.
Gr 7 Up–In the wake of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, 120,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up, incarcerated in camps, and stripped of freedoms in the name of national security. Among them was future television star and political activist Takei, who as a child was imprisoned along with his family. Takei, joined by writers Eisinger and Scott, tells a powerful, somewhat nonlinear story spanning 80 years of U.S. history, starting right after Executive Order 9066 was enacted in 1942.  This evocative memoir shares stories of the nation’s past, draws heartbreaking parallels to the present, and serves as a cautionary tale for the future. 

Desert Diary: Japanese American Kids Behind Barbed Wire by Michael O Tunnell. Charlesbridge. ISBN 9781580897891.
Gr 4-7–This nonfiction resource spotlights the experiences of families of Japanese ancestry imprisoned at Topaz Camp, in Utah, during World War II. Miss Yamauchi, a teacher at Mountain View School, and her third-grade students discussed what was happening at school and at home. She would write a summary of their experiences on a new page in their class daily diary. Students would take turns illustrating a page with pencil and crayon drawings. These pages provide a window into the children’s perspectives and emotions during this dark event in American history. In her editor’s note, Alyssa Mito Pusey, a fourth-generation Japanese American, explains how she and the author worked carefully together to make thoughtful word choices regarding the use of terms such as internment or internment camp. An illuminating addition that challenges readers to think about how people can learn from history and its reverberations.

Enemy Child: The Story of Norman Mineta, a Boy Imprisoned in a Japanese American Internment Camp During World War II by Andrea Warren. Holiday House. ISBN 9780823441518. 
Gr 5–8—When Norman Mineta was nine years old, he was living with his family in San Jose, CA. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Norm's life changed. At first, there were curfews and FBI searches of Japanese American homes. Then Norm learns that a neighbor was handcuffed and taken away. By connecting Mineta's story to the larger events of World War II and its impact on Japanese Americans, the author helps readers learn about a frightening historical injustice. Using more than 100 photographs and many quotes from Mineta, the author chronicles his family's experiences living in a camp in Wyoming, where they lived in a single-room shack, denied their privacy and freedom while being watched by an armed guard. Despite these conditions, we also learn that the family's loyalty to America was unwavering. The author continues the story beyond incarceration to talk about Mineta's career as a politician, serving 10 terms in the House of Representatives and as a cabinet member for two presidents. It is an inspiring story of character and endurance despite hardships. An important, well-told story. 

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