Monday, January 7, 2013

Case Study No. 0708: Clara Breed

Fiction Book Review: Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During ...

This is the summary of Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference by Joanne Oppenheim, Snowden Becker, Elizabeth Kikuchi Yamada.
Tags: dear miss breed true stories of the japanese american incarceration during world war ii and librarian who made difference joanne oppenheim snowden becker elizabeth kikuchi yamada book books reading read review summary history
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A chronicle of the incredible correspondence between California librarian Clara Breed and young Japanese American internees during World War II.

In the early 1940's, Clara Breed was the children's librarian at the San Diego Public Library.

But she was also friend to dozens of Japanese American children and teens when war broke out in December of 1941.

The story of what happened to these American citizens is movingly told through letters that her young friends wrote to Miss Breed during their internment.

This remarkable librarian and humanitarian served as a lifeline to these imprisoned young people, and was brave enough to speak out against a shameful chapter in American history.



"Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference"
by Joanne Oppenheim
Publication Date: February 1, 2006

This passionately written history bears witness to the World War II injustices endured by Japanese Americans, from a vantage point of particular relevance to young people. In a poignant introduction, seasoned children's writer Oppenheim explains how her hunt for a former classmate, a Japanese American, serendipitously led her to an Internet profile of San Diego children's librarian Clara Breed, and to a collection of letters written to Breed by her incarcerated Japanese patrons--grateful, illuminating responses to Breed's faithful missives and care packages containing books and other gifts. Although the letters (and interviews with their grown-up authors) form the narrative's bedrock, Oppenheim weaves them into a broader account, amplified by photos, archival materials (including a startlingly racist cartoon by Dr. Seuss), and moving quotations from the later reparation hearings: "I was just 10 years old when I became a 'squint-eyed yellow-bellied Jap.'" Along with the basic facts, Oppenheim urges readers to critically interpret primary sources and identify "governmental doublespeak"; the words "incarceration" or "concentration" are consciously employed here as correctives for softpedaling terminology like "internment" and "relocation." Unclear references in the children's letters are not always annotated, and the recurring discussion of professional concerns facing Breed (whose own letters to the camps have been lost) often seems to cater too obviously to Oppenheim's adult readers. But the aggregate deserves commendation for its sheer quantity of accessible, exhaustively researched information about a troubling period, more resonant now than ever, when American ideals were compromised by fear and unfortunate racial assumptions. Eight pages of unusually readable, wide-ranging endnotes and an exhaustive bibliography conclude, evidence of Oppenheim's all-consuming research process.



On December 7,1941 the Japanese American children in California, Oregon, and Washington awoke as American citizens; by nightfall they had become enemy suspects who could not be trusted. War came like a hurricane that swept away their security and freedom.In a matter of months they were incarcerated by their own government, though their only "crime" was having the wrong ancestors.

Four months later, to the day, on April 7, 1942, all those of Japanese ancestry in San Diego were forced to leave the only homes most had every known. Clara Breed, a young librarian in San Diego, went to Union Station with a stack of self-addressed, stamped postcards that she gave to the young people she had known since they were small children.

"Write to me," she told them, "and I will send you books and other things you might need." For many of the children, dear Miss Breed was their sole link to the world outside the barbed wire fences in the brutal desert of Arizona. Told through their letters, diaries, and recent oral histories, the story is largely in the words of those who lived through this shameful time in our past. Their stories chronicle the past and resonate with the present as a cautionary tale.



Clara Breed, a children's librarian in San Diego, never married and never had any children. At least none of her own.

But until her death in 1994, at 88, she talked about "her children," dozens of them, Japanese-Americans who were sent to incarceration camps during World War II.

Joanne Oppenheim, 71, who has written more than 50 books for children and parents, says she never heard of "the remarkable Miss Breed until I met her on the Internet."

That was in 2001, when Oppenheim was searching for an old classmate to invite to their 50th high school reunion.

She found the classmate, as well as Breed, and another book to write: Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference (Scholastic, $22.99).

It's aimed at readers 12 and older. Young readers "should know about a brave woman and a shameful part of our history," Oppenheim says. She dismisses the official terms "relocation" and "internment" camps as "doublespeak for 'incarceration' and 'concentration camps.' "

Oppenheim stumbled across the story searching for former classmates at Monticello (N.Y.) High School. One of them, Ellen Yukawa, was among 120,000 Japanese-Americans, most of them U.S. citizens, who were rounded up by the FBI and incarcerated after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Oppenheim's search took her to the website of the Japanese American National Museum ( There, she found dozens of letters from children incarcerated in places such as Poston, Ariz., and Heart Mountain, Wyo.

The letters all began "Dear Miss Breed" and they thanked her for books and toys she had sent.

Breed had known the children in San Diego as library patrons before the war and considered their incarceration a terrible injustice.

During the war, she published essays in Library Journal and Horn Book Magazine describing "her children. ... One day they were living in a democracy, as good as anyone or almost, and the next they were 'Japs' aware of hate and potential violence."

Oppenheim says wartime hysteria and racism were widespread, especially on the West Coast, which feared a Japanese invasion.

Oppenheim found no evidence that Breed was penalized for her unpopular views. After the war, she was San Diego's city librarian for 25 years. She stayed in touch with many of her "children," and in 1991 she was honored at a reunion of Japanese-Americans who had been incarcerated in Poston.

She saved the children's letters and gave them to one of her correspondents, Elizabeth Kikuchi Yamada, who, in the introduction to Dear Miss Breed, writes: "Every book that Clara Breed sent me was an affirmation that we were not the enemy. ... Every book was hope."

Oppenheim spent five years on her book, slowed by breast cancer (she's now in remission), and says she was struck by how relevant the story became after 9/11 and a new wartime debate about civil liberties and national security.

Oppenheim finished her book with one disappointment: Breed had saved the children's letters to her, but Oppenheim couldn't find any of Breed's letters to the children.

But just before the book went to press, Oppenheim called one of Breed's correspondents, Tetsuzo Hirasaki, looking for a recent photo. His niece called back to say her uncle had died but she would send a photo of him from the reunion.

She also found in her uncle's papers a letter from Breed. It became the final page in the book.

It's typed and addressed to "Dear Tetsuzo" and says in part:

"You said once that you were 'afraid' of dissension among the Japanese. I have moments of being 'afraid' of America. I want so much to have her live up to your unshaken belief in her."

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