Say, the Caldecott-winning creator of Grandfather's Journey, was born in Japan in 1937 and moved with his family to the United States in 1953. In July 2000, when his own work was honored with an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, he had an opportunity to view the museum's exhibition on the WWII internment camps in the U.S., which inspired his latest picture book.
PW: In an endnote to your book, you mention that a museum exhibition prompted a "personal journey." How did that journey evolve?
AS: Each book I work on is a personal journey. Before I saw that exhibit, I was on another journey, but the show made me go off in another direction.
It was not a conscious change on my part, but the two girls in a Dorothea Lange photograph [Mochida Family Awaiting Evacuation Bus, 1942] led the way. There's a defiance on the boy's face, the mother is trying to smile, the father is smiling, and the two littlest girls wear an expression of incomprehension. [The next to youngest] girl wears the saddest face; she's the one I identify with most.
In July 2000, I was being honored by the Japanese American National Museum, and I suddenly realized that these people are regarding me as their spokesman. But my father was Korean, persecuted by the Japanese military police during WWII.
I realized that I was the perfect agent [for telling this story] precisely because of my detachment.
PW: The artwork in your book takes on a dreamlike or, rather, nightmarish quality that is different from the narrative quality of your other books. Did you begin with specific images in mind?
AS: It is a nightmare, and I approached it as such. I usually do have some image in mind, but by the time I finish, they're usually nothing like what I planned. A lot of this was not a conscious decision.
[When I began this project] I was going to do a romantic piece about a "lost civilization" [the Indians] wandering the desert. [Later] I studied about the location of the camps in Arizona, and they were on Indian land—in fact, all of them are on Indian land, when you think about it.
PW: How did you go about presenting this subject to a young audience?
AS: When I work on a book, I don't have a particular audience in mind. But it's been my experience that if I develop an idea as well as I can, both adults and youngsters seem to get something out of it, and that's the best I can ask for.
I'm a war child, so I saw the war through a child's eyes. Home of the Brave is an indictment against the world—I suppose, the adult world. It's always the children who suffer the most. When I was a child, I wanted to grow up instantly, so I could fight back. So I removed all the adults; the adults are in the watchtowers.
The protagonist who goes through the journey represents the new Japanese-American who wants to forget. Many are ashamed of their forebears and want to move forward. You're never sure if he recognizes these houses [in the camp]. Even when he sees his own name on that tag, he doesn't make the association right away.
PW: Can you describe the significance of the book's title?
AS: That term ["home of the brave"] has always puzzled me—try explaining it to any foreigner. Is it the house of a war hero? A tepee? The land the Indians lost?
But when this book was nearly finished, a voice whispered that phrase in my ear and it sounded just right, though I can't tell you why. I thought my editor [Walter Lorraine] might object, but he didn't, so I went with it.
The final message is that these Japanese-American children seem to have come home, but the Indians have not. It's probably the most politically charged book I've done, but I didn't mean it to come out that way. I like to think it's coming from a primordial place.