From time to time, we will reread classics or award winning children’s books from the past to see how they might be viewed in our current day.
In the Bay Area, there are many Japanese-American families whose grandparents were kids in the World War II assembly centers and relocation camps. The Moved-Outers is a brief but moving novel about one family who experienced that injustice. This Newbery Honor book is unusual because it was published not as historical fiction but as a contemporary story, coming out just as the camps were starting to close, allowing Japanese-Americans to move back to the West Coast.
In some ways, the novel is outdated – some of the language and formality of the main character’s speech sounds corny. But teenage Sue and her brother Kim are involving protagonists who don’t really fit Asian-American stereotypes, which is helpful in reinforcing the theme that these kids were just as American as anyone else. Sue is very emotional at times, and Kim is quite angry and vocal about the injustice of forcing U.S. citizens like himself into camps just based on ethnicity. So this political tone makes the book very contemporary.
I was surprised I hadn’t heard of this book before; approximately one third of the kids in my elementary school were Japanese-American – the children of parents who were teenagers in those camps. I had difficulty hunting down a copy of the book after I heard about it recently; I bought a used copy online. Unfortunately, even with its Newbery Honor status, it wasn’t available from the San Leandro, Alameda County System, or Berkeley libraries. It is Out of Print, so they probably owned it at one time. Luckily, it is available at Oakland and San Jose public libraries.
Even though the author wasn’t Japanese-American, the book seems factual; there are quite a few details on the assembly centers and relocation camps, so she obviously did a great deal of research. The book also avoids the condescending tone some Anglo-American authors had when writing about “minorities.” It also avoids telling the story from a white character’s point of view, such as one of the camp employees. Once in a while a white character may comment, like Sue’s supervisor at the camp school where Sue teaches kindergarten, but overall it is told from Sue’s point of view.
Kim is also an intriguing character; he is clearly angrier than Sue is about their circumstances. At one point, he is shot by locals while working outside of the Amache Camp on a surveying crew, and he has mixed emotions about joining the U.S. Army. Kim and Sue offer the various perspectives that were common to young adults in the camps. Another nice aspect is the friendship between Sue and Jiro, who comes from a more working class and “old world” family from the same town as Sue’s family. Jiro brings in the aspect of those who were less “Americanized” and more likely to go along with whatever the government requested of them.
Means often wrote about various cultures and was a vocal supporter of equal rights, according to the Horn Book article “Florence Crannell Means” by Siri M. Andrews, published in the January-February 1946 edition. The article describes several of her children’s novels, often reflecting the story of a non-white child. Means was a missionary in the Southwest, and some of her books focus on Native American Indian children she knew. Often these types of portrayals can come across as patronizing, but in The Moved Outers, that didn’t happen. The book seems very truthful as to the conflicting emotions a teenage girl would have about this experience.
Penny Peck, San Jose State Univ. SLIS