Japanese American Book Recommendations

In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), I teamed up with Jen from @thedimpledteacher for a photo challenge to highlight API teacher experiences! For this third week of May, we are sharing our FAVORITES! Favorite anything! On Instagram, I shared my favorite family tradition: Mochitsuki, the act of pounding steamed rice to make mochi (a type of sweet and sticky rice cake). You can check out my post here.

To go hand in hand with my favorite family traditions, I thought I would share one of my newest favorite books, Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence. The story is very reminiscent of my own childhood, as I think back on Mochitsuki. The women would prepare things in the kitchen while the men would prepare the equipment for physical labor. The women would roll the hot mochi with an, sweet red bean, while the men would pound the steamed rice into the actual mochi. I always saw this gender dynamic and was curious as a kid. My mom always told me the men did it because it was hard work and required a lot of muscles. Usually it was just the older generation of men that did it, but ten years ago, a bunch of us younger girls and boys (now in our twenties) wanted the experience! I was afraid to try, but wanted to see what it was like. To show I was ready for the challenge, I put the paddle high in the air. I slammed the wooden paddle down and hard as I could and I heard it go splat in the hot and sticky rice! Then the wooden paddle just stuck in there! I couldn’t lift it back out because it was so sticky…I needed help! In the end, it didn’t matter to me that I couldn’t pull the paddle back out, but it mattered to me that I had the chance to try something new, something that was a part of my family and culture for generations.

In Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen, Jasmine experiences something similar. The desire to try something that “she wasn’t old enough to do.” She convinces her dad to give her a shot and once you read the book, you’ll see why I had such a deep connection to Jasmine.

The Jasmine Toguchi series just came out over the last couple of years. I had no idea I had a “void to fill,” in regards to seeing and relating to a contemporary Japanese American female protagonist until I read this book and that void was filled.

Sharing the Japanese American Experience in your Classroom

Here are some of my other favorites that I am familiar with and would highly suggest if you’re wanting to bring the Japanese/Japanese American experience to life in your classroom. To me, it is not only important for me to share my own story with my students, but to share this time in history with my students so that we can make sure nothing like it ever happens again. In my opinion, the following pieces of text are most suitable for grades 4-8.  Picture books are great for anyone!

Novels

  •  Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki: I read this book as a student and when given the opportunity to select novels for my 8th grade students, I was so excited to be able to share it with them! I remember it really giving me a clearer context to talk to my grandma about her experiences in Manzanar and it opened up the dialogue to learning more about her. Teaching Resources linked here.
  • Dust of Eden by Mariko Nagai: If you enjoyed the style of Inside Out and Back Again, then you’ll enjoy a similar style in this novel that tells the story of a young girl before, during, and after the Japanese/Japanese American internment camps. It is a quick and informative, yet powerful read.
  • Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling: As a result of reading Farewell to Manzanar, one of my students shared this novel with me, and I loved the duality of it. It shows how two girls, similar in age with different ethnic backgrounds, experience segregation and racism in their communities. When I made the move to 6th grade, it provided me a way to bring this history to my students, and I’ve also taught it in 5th grade. Teaching Resources linked here.
  • Bat 6 by Virginia Euwer Wolff: This novel made it’s way around my classroom library for six years before I noticed and read it. It has an intriguing storyline. I love that it is based on a sixth-grade girls softball rivalry, but found that it was a little hard to keep track of characters because it was told from the perspectives of both teams’ players. However, the complexity of the main characters and the ending make it a must read. 
  • The Girl with Hair like the Sun by Claire Mix: Told from the perspective of an ally to the interned Japanese and Japanese Americans, this book is inspired by true events. The fifteen year old protagonist volunteers in the Poston, Arizona internment camp where she sees first-hand, the injustices that the Japanese Americans face. She sees the wants and needs of the internees for everyday items like candy and toothpaste. Although it is a against the law, she begins to go out and buy the things and “smuggle” them in for her new friends.w

Informational Text

  • Fred Korematsu Speaks Up (Fighting for Justice) by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi: This is a newer book and it weaves poetry, pictures, timelines, and informational text features altogether. It tells the story of Fred Korematsu’s resistance to internment camps and provides excellent historical context. I like it because it shows that not all Japanese Americans were “compliant model minorities that just did what was expected of them.” 

Picture Books

  • Write to Me by Cynthia Grady: I can’t remember how I came across this book, but like other favorites, I love that it is true and demonstrates to kids what it can look like to be an ally. It shows that just because you’re not directly impacted by something unfair doesn’t mean you have to stand around and just watch it happen. It is based on the true story of librarian, Clara Breed, and how she not only brought books to Japanese American children during their internment, but also advocated for their rights.
  • Journey of Heroes (Graphic Novel) by Stacey Hayashi: After browsing the galleries of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, I stopped in their gift shop and found this very cool graphic novel. Much of what I know about the 442nd Regimental Combat team comes from first-hand accounts that my grandfather shared. They include a range of things from being in training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to being in Italy and taking charge of making meals for his team. This graphic novel showcases the journeys of the men in the 100th infantry battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat team–all Japanese American units from Hawaii and the mainland. For more on their stories, definitely check out this TEDTalk and this free resource from Hello Teacher Lady that I’ve even used with my 5th graders.
  • Suki’s Kimono: This is a fun book to read, especially at the beginning of the school year, as one young girl selects her outfit for the first day of school. She picks out a kimono, despite the fact that her sister says she will get teased for it, and Suki shares her enthusiasm for her culture with her class!

More to read!

Here are some other great books that I am either less familiar with or with some of the picture books, feel that they’ve had more exposure already. For those that I feel less familiar with, it is either because I haven’t read them in a long time or they’ve been on my shelf for longer than I’d like to admit, only half read. They are all linked.

Novels

Informational

Picture Books

Though I would love to share diverse books that encompass more of the Asian Pacific Islander experiences, I am specifically sharing Japanese American books and authors for no other reason than because these books have helped me be more curious about my own culture and family history or they have helped me when I was curious about learning more. Next year for APAHM, I would love to share more books and resources about my husband’s family history and heritage–the Vietnamese American experience. It’ll be a goal! Until then, please check out these other amazing educators that are working to show kids and adults that #RepresentationMatters, especially the API identity, through their books, actions, words, and presence. 

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