Today we're talking to Laura Atkins about Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, the first book in the new Fighting for Justice series, written with Stan Yogi and illustrated by Yutaka Houlette, out now from Heyday Books!
Fred Korematsu liked listening to music on the radio, playing tennis, and hanging around with his friends—just like lots of other Americans. But everything changed when the United States went to war with Japan in 1941 and the government forced all people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes on the West Coast and move to distant prison camps. This included Fred, whose parents had immigrated to the United States from Japan many years before. But Fred refused to go. He knew that what the government was doing was unfair. And when he got put in jail for resisting, he knew he couldn’t give up.
Inspired by the award-winning book for adults Wherever There’s a Fight, the Fighting for Justice series introduces young readers to real-life heroes and heroines of social progress. The story of Fred Korematsu’s fight against discrimination explores the life of one courageous person who made the United States a fairer place for all Americans, and it encourages all of us to speak up for justice.
Welcome, Laura! How did this book come together?
The process of coming to being for this book was unconventional. I was invited to work with my co-author Stan Yogi after he’d already been drafting the book, and was brought in because of my children’s book background. I’ve worked in editorial for over 20 years (Children’s Book Press, Orchard Books, Lee & Low Books and freelance), and then with my spangly MFA from VCFA, brought a new writing string on my bow. Stan had co-written a book for adults called Wherever There’s a Fight - a history of the fight for civil liberties in California. He had amazing historical background, including having worked at the ACLU for 14 years. So he had enormous knowledge and a personal connection to Fred Korematsu’s story. Stan’s family was also incarcerated during WWII, and he became an activist himself.
L-R: Illustrator Yutaka Houlette, Laura Atkins, editor Molly Woodward, and co-writer Stan Yogi
I ended up proposing the format, which includes a biography in free verse, and what we call “insets,” which extend the themes of the book. There were a couple of motivations here. We worked with various advisors, and one librarian said that while the book was going to be aimed at a fourth grade audience, it would be great if we could write it below a 4th grade reading level, because so many of her students read below level. That was part of the inspiration for the biography in free verse. We figured readers of many ages could engage with that, and made sure to keep the biography portion very immediate and emotionally engaging. We wanted kids to think: How would I feel in the same situation?
With the insets we used lots of images, knowing that kids love to engage visually. And in this space we could give explanations. For instance, we talk about historical discrimination against many immigrant groups including the Japanese, or we introduce the ACLU, or we describe Fred Korematsu’s legal battle up to the Supreme Court. We were also able to show photos of the incarceration camps, and unpick the use of images and words for propaganda, asking young readers to look and read critically.
We also wanted the book, and the Fighting for Justice series as a whole, to engage young readers to think about how they might also stand or speak up. So we include questions for them in their own lives, and end the book with the “activist spread,” which includes suggestions for way kids can get involved in speaking up for what they believe in, and provide links and resources.
We worked closely with Karen Korematsu, Fred Korematsu’s daughter, so the book would reflect her father in a way that felt right to her. And we had an amazing editor, Molly Woodward, who was really the third leg in this table (fourth, if you include Yutaka, the illustrator).
It was amazing to work in such a collaborative way. I took the lead in writing the poetic biography, while Stan took the lead on the insets. And Molly was there advising on all of it, including helping to write definitions and finding images we could use. It was a “takes a village book,” which I love, because the process really mirrored the message and spirit of the book. We are stronger together, and need each other to build a more just world.
Stan and I have been speaking to young people since the book released on January 30th, or Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution (in California and a few other states). We’ve reached almost 3,000 kids, mainly from 4-8th grade. And we’ve been inspired to see how motivated young people already are to speak up, especially in these challenging times. In Davis, when visiting the Fred Korematsu Elementary School, three girls, Jana, Mona and Batool, told us proudly how they raised money to repair their mosque after it had been vandalized. They were clearly supported by their teacher and community, and felt inspired to share how they had already spoken up.
Jana, Mona, and Batool at Fred Korematsu Elementary School
We post on our Facebook page when we visit schools or are speaking in other places, in case people want to follow: http://www.facebook.com/groups/1099825273412247/
What’s next in the series?
Stan decided to step back after finding that this book was so involved, and also learning that writing for children brings its own challenges. Heyday asked me if I would like to write the rest of the books in the series, but after seeking advice from my wonderful radical children’s book women group (Zetta Elliott, Maya Gonzalez and Janine Macbeth), I went back and proposed that I co-write each book with a different co-author whose lived experiences reflects the story being told. Luckily, the non-profit Berkeley-based publisher was open to this. So I’m writing the next book about Biddy Mason with poet Arisa White. We have a full draft of the poetic biography and are currently working on the insets, this time with Arisa taking the lead on the former while I take the lead on the latter.
Biddy Mason was an enslaved woman who won her freedom through the courts in Los Angeles, and then went on to earn money as a midwife and doctor’s assistant, buy property and become wealthy, and become a philanthropist and community activist. It’s an exciting story, and brings its own range of new challenges. I’ll look forward to giving more details here when it comes out in the fall of 2018.
We can't wait! Who were your advisors at VCFA?
I had a great array of advisors, and they all had a hand in the creation of this book, but in different ways.
Betsy Partridge helped me find my way deep into non-fiction, and she helped me to brainstorm the writing of this particular book. When I talked through the story with her, she suggested that it should start with Fred Korematsu trying to get his haircut, and being turned away because he was Japanese American. She said that all kids will relate to getting a haircut. It was a great idea! And I’m lucky that she’s based in Berkeley so I get to see her, including at a bookstore event where she sat next to the son of one of Fred Korematsu’s lawyers. Also, Betsy’s godmother Dorothea Lange took very important pictures of the WWI Japanese American incarceration, so she has her own connection to the book.
Louise Hawes helped me to explore my creative voice, especially through meditation and journalling to find character. While I didn’t work on this particular story with her, I did creativity develop and extend non-fiction projects about an historical botanist who I’m still desperate to write and publish about. Louise gave me great tools for dream-storming and playing with my craft.
Mary Quattlebaum gave me enormous help with my critical work (thesis semester), but also editorially. I dove into poetry with Mary, and that experienced definitely informed the writing of the free verse biography. I wouldn’t have had the confidence (which I still barely have) to attempt poetry without her.
Jane Kurtz was my wonderful creative thesis advisor, and we did work directly together on the Fred Korematsu book. She always had the perfect words of encouragement, and also questions to push me to dig deeper. Jane will talk about the life, the universe and everything, and our friendship and work together expanded my world. She’s been an amazing advocate and friend.
I feel so lucky to have had all of these advisors. My work, and my life, wouldn’t have been the same without them. Being at VCFA helped me believe in myself as an author as well as an editor, and gave me the confidence to take this next step. It was life-changing and worth every moment and every penny (even if I will be paying back those pennies for many years to come). I am so grateful for my time there.
Thank you so much for chatting, Laura. Welcome to the world, Fred Korematsu Speaks Up! And here's looking forward to more great books in this series and more young activists!
Laura Atkins is a member of the Inkredibles (January 2017). Laura is an author, teacher, and children’s book editor who worked at Children’s Book Press, Orchard Books, and Lee & Low Books. With an MA in Children’s Literature and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, she co-wrote Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, and is the author of the light-hearted picture book, Sled Dog Dachshund. Passionate about diversity and equity in children’s books, Laura is based in Berkeley, California.
Visit Laura online at www.lauraatkins.com.
For more information about Fred Korematsu Speaks Up and the Fighting for Justice series, visit the series website, the publisher's Fred Korematsu Speaks Up page, and the series/book Facebook page. You can also check out the Facebook page for activist children's books and their creators.