This spring, Holiday House is publishing a nonfiction book a that will shed more light on a dark stain in American history, due both to the prominence of the man at the center of this tale, as well as the highly topical nature of a story about the U.S. government incarcerating immigrants and their children 75 years ago. Enemy Child: A Story of Norman Mineta, a Boy Imprisoned in a Japanese American Internment Camp During World War II by Andrea Warren (Apr. 30). tells the story of Norm Mineta, a 10-year-old boy who was taken by military police with his family from San Jose, Calif., to Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in Ralston, Wyo., where they lived for the duration of World War II. Today, Mineta lives in Maryland, after a long career in politics that included serving as a U.S. congressman and culminated with his serving in the cabinets of two U.S. presidents.
Mineta and his family were just a few of the 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast (two-thirds of them U.S. citizens) who were relocated by the U.S. government to interment camps in the rural Southwest and West after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. There were 10 camps in all run by the War Relocation Authority between 1942–1945.
Since The Moved-Outers by Florence Crannell Means was published in 1945, there has been a steady stream of children’s nonfiction and fiction titles about this incident, including, most famously, Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese-American Experience During and After the World War II Internment, a 1973 book by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston that was made into a film in 1976.
Although the Densho organization’s online encyclopedia of the Japanese-American experience during World War II lists close to 100 children’s books about the relocation camps, many young Americans remain unaware of this incident in U.S. history.
Mineta, now 88 years old, probably is the most prominent American to have lived in one of the camps. Born in 1931 in San Jose to parents who were Japanese immigrants, Mineta became his hometown’s mayor in 1971. After serving as mayor for four years, Mineta served for 22 years (1975–1995) in the U.S. House of Representatives from the state’s 13th congressional district. He later briefly served as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce and then five years as President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Transportation.
In an interview with PW, Warren explained that she approached Mineta to ask him if she could write a book about the internment camps that would focus on his experiences there. The idea came to her while she was in Cody, Wyo., doing research for an earlier children’s biography, The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill: Growing up Billy Cody in Bleeding Kansas (Two Lions, 2015). Learning that there was a World War II internment camp in the vicinity that was now a museum, and not knowing anything about these camps, she paid a visit and saw a poster featuring Mineta. She learned that Mineta was one of the 14,000 people housed there during World War II, and that U.S. Senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.)—was friends with Mineta going back to that time. As an 11-year-old Boy Scout, Simpson visited Heart Mountain, where he met Mineta. They resumed their friendship when Mineta was elected mayor; Simpson wrote Mineta a letter congratulating him, reminding him of their meeting at Heart Mountain.
“Mineta is not someone you can just call on the phone or find his home address to write him,” Warren said, disclosing that she reached out to organizations associated with Mineta to ask him if he would agree to cooperate with her on such a project. Her query included packages containing those of her previous eight history books for children that she deemed most pertinent to Mineta’s situation at Heart Mountain: Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story (Houghton Mifflin, 1998); Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps (HarperCollins, 2002); and Escape from Saigon: How a Vietnam Orphan Became an American Boy (Square Fish, 2008).
“I wanted him to see my style,” she explained. “He said he’d been approached many times, and he’d always said no, he didn’t want to be involved in a commercial endeavor.” But, she added, the books she sent him won him over and he agreed to cooperate with her on the project. After Mineta invited Warren to his home to interview him, the two spent three full days talking at Mineta’s kitchen table.
“He’d never reconstructed the whole story before,” she said, “But Norm has an excellent memory. He could recall who came to the house, their tone of voice, he recalled dialogue. These people lost everything, even their beloved family pets. It’s hard to believe our government would do this.”
Warren also interviewed Sen. Simpson, whose recollections of his visit to Heart Mountain comprise a chapter entitled, “Meeting the Enemy.” Beyond interviewing two retired politicians, Warren said, she “had to be very careful,” and focus on telling Mineta’s story as he remembered it, although she interviewed others who lived there at the same time. Warren also consulted with Dakota Russell, the museum manager at Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, describing him as helping Warren “sort out what was fact and what wasn’t.”
If there was an upside to having had such a traumatic experience at a young age, it was that it inspired Mineta to enter politics, Warren said that she concluded from her extensive conversations with Mineta that “he went through this and did something with his life, not just to restore his people’s honor, but also to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again. He never forgets how fortunate he was and how devastating it was for so many people.”
For Warren, she wants children who read her books—about young people struggling to survive horrific situations—to come away with the realization that they can work through any problems they might encounter in their own lives.
“Attitude makes all the difference,” Warren said, noting that children can process such difficult stories as Nazi death camps and orphan trains, if presented in an appropriate way.
In a statement provided to PW, Mineta wrote, “When Andrea Warren approached me about writing a book based on my boyhood experiences in an internment camp, I agreed for a couple of reasons. I’ve never wanted to profit from what happened to me. But Andrea writes for young readers, and I feel passionately about getting this story into the hands of students. They need to understand what happened and why, so they will recognize the signs of such a thing happening again and will resist it. Because Andrea is a careful researcher who knows her readers well and writes with empathy and objectivity, I knew she was the right person to entrust with my story.”
Heart Mountain War Relocation Center was mis-identified in an earlier version of this story and has been updated.