Japanese-American internment: ‘Ignorance of such stories may mean we repeat them’

Hailing from Kenmore, Washington, Newbery Honor-winning author Kirby Larson will be visiting Juneau to speak at local schools and to attend a book signing for her young adult, historical novel “Dash,” which won the Scott O’Dell for historical fiction. It’s a tale about a Japanese-American girl who is separated from her beloved dog Dash when her family is placed in the Minidoka internment camp during World War II.

The book is inspired by the real story of Mitsue “Mitsi” Shiraishi. Mitsi was separated from her dog Chubby when she was sent to an internment camp run by Gen. John L. DeWitt. The camp didn’t allow pets, so her neighbor kept the dog and wrote a diary of Chubby’s first week without Mitsi for her as if Chubby himself wrote the entries. The rules at the camp changed a year later and Mitsi and Chubby were reunited.

The Empty Chair Project and the National Park Service are co-sponsoring Larson’s visit. Both organizations have purchased copies of “Dash” for school use and also a generous collection of other fiction and non-fiction books to be available in what is called The Empty Chair Collection.

I was able to do a short Q&A with Larson about her work before her arrival to Juneau. These are her responses.

What prompted you to write about the Japanese-American World War Two internment in “Dash”?

I grew up in Seattle and didn’t learn about the Japanese American incarceration until I was in college. It was shocking to think that I could have grown up around people whose families had been impacted and never heard a word about it. This topic has been a passion of mine ever since and, when I learned the story of Mitsue “Mitsi” Shiraishi, I knew I had to tell this story.

Why do you think writing about the Japanese-American interment during World War Two is so important, especially for young people?

I travel all over the U.S. (and the world!) talking to people of all ages about my books and it continues to amaze me that there are people who still do not know this story. I was recently in Texas and once again heard from a group of librarians — smart, well-educated folks — that they knew very little about this slice of American history. Ignorance of such stories may mean we repeat them.

Can you tell me what brought you to visit Juneau and speak at local schools?

I am being brought to the schools as part of a National Park Service grant, inspired by the Empty Chair project. Even though the timing was difficult for me, I could not turn down this invitation. I think Mitsi would’ve been so pleased.

What do you hope children will learn from researching and writing about Japanese-Americans from Juneau?

Because my audience is primarily children, it’s often assumed that I write to teach kids something. I don’t. I write to explore questions I have about this messy marvelous world we live in. And, if in answering those questions, I inspire kids (and other readers!), to think and wonder, I am pleased.

How much did you know about the Japanese-American internment in Minidoka before writing “Dash,” and how much did you have to do to write the book?

I actually knew a decent amount about Minidoka from researching a previous book for the Dear America series for Scholastic “The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis,” but I knew very little about Camp Harmony, where a good portion of “Dash” takes place. That took a little more digging. I am so grateful to Louis Fiset, author of “Camp Harmony: Seattle’s Japanese Americans and the Puyallup Assembly Center.” In writing that book, he pieced together a map of the camp from a variety of sources. He generously shared that map with me, a complete stranger, without a moment’s hesitation. And, of course, I am eternally grateful to Mitsi’s family for sharing family photos, letters, journals and other ephemera.

Have you visited Minidoka before? Were you able to speak with people who were at the internment camps?

I have not visited Minidoka but I have interviewed people who’d been at the camps. I also dug deep into the University of Washington archives; took advantage of the materials at Densho.org (Densho is a foundation dedicated to preserving incarceration stories); as well as read the diary of the Superintendent of Education at Minidoka, Minidoka newsletters, old newspapers, etc. I am compulsive about in-depth research. Even though “Dash” won the prestigious Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction prize, the “prize” I cherish most is the email I received from a woman who’d been at both Camp Harmony and Minidoka as a teen; she said I’d written Dash as if I’d been in those places. There is no higher praise than that.

What was the most difficult aspect of writing this novel?

Every novel poses its own set of problems. Since I am not Japanese American, it was all the more important to draw on trusted resources — like Mitsi’s daughter-in-law, Judy Kusakabe— to make sure I got the story right. But ultimately I felt such a sense of love and connection to Mitsi (who, sadly, passed long before I found her story) that I believed I could do her story justice.

This is the second book you’ve written about a child and their friendship with their dog during World War Two. What has made you interested in exploring humans’ relationships with their furry friends during this time period in your writing?

It’s important to me to find a way to connect today’s readers with yesterday’s stories. Dogs are the perfect connector! I mean, really. Who doesn’t like dogs? My readers —kids and adults alike— sure seem to love them. The response to “Duke” and “Dash” has been so positive, Scholastic asked me to write two more books in the series. “Liberty” comes out in September 2016 and “Bear” in September 2017.

Any general comment you’d like to make about “Dash” or your trip to Juneau?

I am indebted to Mary Tanaka Abo, whose family is critical part of the Empty Chair Project; Margie Shackelford, chairperson of the Empty Chair Project; Brent Fischer, Director of Juneau Parks and Recreation; JoAnn Jones, a teacher at Auke Bay Elementary; and Julie Leary, a teacher at Harborview Elementary, for working so hard to bring me to Juneau. I can’t wait to meet the students of Auke Bay and Harborview! And thank you, Clara, and the Empire staff, for caring enough about kids, kids’ books and history to write this piece!

Larson will do a public book signing at the downtown location of Hearthside Books on Thursday, May 5 from 5-6 p.m. During the day she will speak at Auke Bay and Harborview elementary schools. More can be learned about Larson at kirbylarson.com.

The Empire is also interviewing Jamie Ford, author of “Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” who is coming to town as part of the same Empty Chair Project and the National Park service to speak at local schools.

• Contact Clara Miller at 523-2243 or at clara.miller@juneauempire.com.

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