Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind by Cynthia Grady, illustrated by Amiko Hirao
Beyond the barrage of soul-depleting headlines is this much-needed reminder of utter goodness, when one brave woman affected the lives of dozens of young children. And books – that very best antidote for all ‘-isms’ – were, of course involved.
Among the 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent who were imprisoned without cause by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 during World War II were, of course, children. At the East San Diego Branch of the San Diego Library which served many Japanese American families before WWII, supervising children’s librarian Clara E. Breed made sure her young patrons weren’t sent away empty-handed. As each came to return their books along with their library card, Miss Breed handed out stamped, addressed postcards with an encouraging request: “‘Write to us … We’ll want to know where you are.'”
When Miss Breed went to the train station as families departed, she “couldn’t believe her eyes” watching people tagged “as if they were bundles of luggage,” ordered about by gun-carrying soldiers. But she managed to hug the children, and pass out books and more postcards: “‘If you need anything, just write.'”
With so many of her patrons gone, “[t]he library was a lonelier place” … until the postcards started coming back to Miss Breed. With address in hand, Miss Breed sent more books, more stamped postcards. She went to visit the holding center in Arcadia, California, although “[t]he guards didn’t let her hug the children or even shake their hands.” But her visit, her books, her words would become lifelong memories. Back in San Diego, Miss Breed wrote articles to let the “people across the country … know about the treatment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast.”
When the prisoners were sent to a desert camp in Poston, Arizona, Miss Breed’s letters and books followed. She added “seeds for planing, thread for sewing, and soap for washing. She sent cleaners, crepe paper, pencils, and glue for making crafts.” And the children continued to write back – about what they saw, what they endured, “about beauty … about fear … [as t]hey all waited for peace.”
Retired librarian Cynthia Grady’s resonating presentation of Miss Breed’s remarkable story couldn’t be more timely. While Write is not the first book celebrating Miss Breed (check out Joanne Oppenheim’s Dear Miss Breed, for example), it’s the first picture book, enabling even the youngest readers to learn about the lasting legacy of kindness and caring.
That the pages are filled with the children’s postcards, included verbatim, adds poignant urgency. Grady’s librarian expertise is evident throughout, from the black-and-white photos that begin and end her book, to her illuminating author’s note, timeline, historical overview, and additional resources that go well beyond Miss Breed’s story. Meanwhile, Japanese-born, Rhode Island School of Design-trained artist Amiko Hirao’s soft illustrations both welcome and expose, sharing experiences and bearing witness.
For those of us needing to take (regular) news breaks, reminders of humanity feel fundamentally imperative to saving our fraying sanity. Write to Me is most definitely one of those precious antidotes. Read it, love it, share it.