Book Spotlight: The Bracelet – Yoshiko Uchida

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

The Bracelet follows the story of Emi, a Japanese American second-grader who is sent to a concentration camp with her mother and sister.

What I liked:

  • Uchida is (was) one of the best-known Nikkei authors writing about JA incarceration, but before coming across The Bracelet I thought she had only written middle-grade historical fiction. It’s nice to see she also produced work for younger readers.
  • Joanna Yardley’s artist note at the beginning of the book states she used a Japanese American model, presumably for her depictions of Emi. My initial impression of the cover illustration was, ‘wow, this girl actually looks Japanese,’ so it’s great to hear the artist put in the work of finding a model. Sometimes, I see white artists creating very white-looking Asians and other POC – I’m glad that wasn’t the case with Yardley.
  • Uchida’s narrative style reminds me of Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower – clear, honest, and concise. The reader is not spared Emi’s distress and confusion at being incarcerated, nor the harsh conditions of the Tanforan Racetrack. As Kadohata does with Sumiko in Weedflower, Uchida filters the information provided to the reader via the lens of Emi’s youth. I did find the ending a little too tidy – Emi’s faith in her friend Laurie was hard to view as realistic, given the difficulties Japanese Americans faced reintegrating into society after their release. I can see why Uchida and/or her editor might want to close on a hopeful note – the target audience is children, after all – but when I compare this ending to Allen Say’s books where he depicts his experiences with racism head-on, I don’t think it would be too “adult” to imply Emi’s postwar future might hold obstacles. Kadohata also doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of post-camp life in Weedflower.
  • Yardley’s illustrations are vividly colorful. Aesthetically, I found them wonderful. In light of the book’s subject matter, not so much. Color often sets the mood of a picture book and in this case, the brightness of Yardley’s palette is difficult to read as anything but happy and joyful. It’s difficult to reconcile these subliminal (or overt, depending on your interpretation) messages with the serious content being presented. If Yardley’s intent was to convey the strength and hope of Japanese Americans in the face of racism and incarceration – well, I still think it could have been done with a subtler palette. One illustration, probably my least favorite in the book, depicts the buses carrying Emi and other JAs to Tanforan as they cross the Bay Bridge. The scene is sunny, the colors warm and vibrant. Take this illustration and plunk it into a picture book about some kids going on a field trip and it wouldn’t look out of place at all. Although some JAs who went to camp at a very young age recollect not knowing what was going on and thinking they were on a field trip, in The Bracelet we already know from the previous scenes that Emi is very aware this is not a field trip. Who, then, are the colors for? Why the false optimism? On whose behalf, exactly, is the narrative being softened?

What I learned:

  • Emi and her family live in Berkeley before their forced removal. I don’t know the history of Berkeley, but now I wonder if there was a significant JA community there before the war. It’s not a location I’ve seen mentioned in discussions of historic JA communities, so I’ll have to do a bit of digging.

Questions I had:

  • Words like “incarceration” and “concentration camp” are never used in the book – instead, we have “internment,” “relocation,” and “evacuation.” Did Uchida use this terminology in her original draft, or was it an editorial decision? This terminology also appears in Uchida’s afterword. I’ll have to take a look at her other books to see which words she uses there. I’m always curious about the word choices Nikkeijin make when discussing the camps. I personally favor the more straightforward “incarceration,” but given the emotional history of the era, as well as the subsequent pressures (internal and external) to conform to “model minority” standards, I can see why other Nikkeijin might lean toward the softer terminology (or prefer not to discuss their experiences at all).
  • Who was Uchida’s intended audience? Although the history of incarceration continues to be a sensitive topic in the JA community, I think most Japanese American children reading this book would already know the aftermath of incarceration doesn’t match the tone of the book’s ending. Additionally, Uchida’s portrayal of white characters like Laurie and Mrs. Simpson seems to let white Americans completely off the hook regarding incarceration. Yes, there were white people who looked after their Japanese neighbors’ properties and belongings during the incarceration, but there were also plenty of white people who supported incarceration and openly expressed anti-Japanese sentiments. None of the latter type of white people are shown in the book, which to me is a dishonest omission. (It should also be noted, white people who did/said nothing about incarceration were complicit in anti-Japanese racism. There is no ‘neutral.’) Children shouldn’t be shielded from racism – instead, authors and other media creators should be finding ways to present race and other complicated topics in ways children will understand.

Follow-up:

  • I have a bunch of Uchida’s other books sitting in my TBR pile, so I will be reading those for comparison, hopefully in the near future. I want to say I also have a biography or autobiography of Uchida on my list somewhere, but I might just be making that up.*

*If no such book exists yet, I would love to see a Nikkei writer tackle this project!

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