Book Spotlight: Baseball Saved Us – Ken Mochizuki

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Baseball Saved Us, written by Ken Mochizuki and illustrated by Dom Lee, tells the story of an unnamed Japanese American boy who finds strength in baseball during and after his time in a US concentration camp.

What I liked:

  • Mochizuki never uses “concentration camp” or “incarceration” in the text – which makes sense, since young readers might not know what those words mean, but he does use the capitalized “Camp” throughout the story and the MC* tells us early on how “Camp” is not the same as summer camp. If I had read this book as a kid, I’d probably have gone to my dad and asked him to tell me more about why “Camp” is capitalized, and I can imagine other JA/Nikkei kids doing the same. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but I appreciate Mochizuki creating the space for these conversations via a single terminology choice.
  • The MC is never named in the text.** I actually read the entire book without realizing it and only noticed as I was reviewing details in preparation for this post. I’m not sure why Mochizuki left the MC nameless, but I think it worked for this story (also, I believe this is more common in picture books than in novels). First, while many formerly incarcerated JAs have shared their experiences, others have either passed away or chosen to keep their memories private. Mochizuki’s nameless MC could thus be read as a stand-in for the many JAs whose stories we will never hear. I also wonder if Mochizuki intended the story to be an homage/testament to everyone who endured the camps, a way of saying, ‘regardless of whether you shared your story, your experiences were/are valid and we will remember you.’ Second, the story’s first-person POV combined with the MC’s unknown name might help draw young readers into the narrative. Although I’m not usually a fan of nameless MCs, in this case I imagine my younger self easily ‘stepping’ into the MC’s shoes and seeing the camp through his eyes. Encouraging empathy is key, especially for young readers whose first exposure to camp history might very well be this book.
  • Dom Lee’s illustrations are perfect for the story and subject matter. (Side note: I recommend reading the note at the beginning, which details how the illustrations were created; it’s listed after the acknowledgments on the back of the title page.) Lee’s mostly-brown palette simultaneously evokes old photographs (not surprising, since some of the illustrations were apparently inspired by Lange’s camp photos), dusty baseball diamonds, and camps in the desert. Message: these camps were historic and being in them involved dust and dirt. It’s quite a contrast from Joanna Yardley’s brightly colored illustrations in Yoshiko Uchida’s camp narrative, The Bracelet.*** At the same time, Lee’s dynamic compositions and multiple double-page spreads keep the visual narrative active and interesting. The many baseball-playing scenes probably help with the pacing – Lee is a master at rendering active poses and animated facial expressions.
  • One of my favorite illustrations is the scene when Teddy defies their father’s request for a cup of water. I’ve heard multiple JAs comment on how some of the worst aspects of the camps have been glossed over or omitted in firsthand accounts, for various reasons. Similarly, as I’m sure my fellow JAs know, the choices we make about how much we reveal when telling our stories can change how our community views and treats us. Knowing all this, I’m glad whenever I see a fellow JA take a straightforward, non-euphemistic approach to portraying certain conditions in the camps. For example, I didn’t know about non-partitioned toilets until recently, when I saw a photo on the Manzanar Committee website. Granted, I’ve barely brushed the surface of camp-related media and literature, but I’m surprised I didn’t know this until now.
  • This has nothing whatsoever to do with camps, but did any fellow JA/Nikkei readers connect the ‘glinting glasses’ to the same motif often found in manga and anime? Lee is Korean and, I imagine, has some knowledge of Japanese drawing styles, so when I saw the first reference to the glasses of the man in the tower, I immediately wondered if Lee and/or Mochizuki was intentionally engaging in dialogue with Japanese art. I’ve personally always found the use of ‘glinting glasses’ by Japanese artists hilarious (fellow JA/Nikkei readers, ask me about my love of signature manga style quirks sometime), so I’d like to imagine the connection exists, but I might be totally wrong. I don’t even know if Mochizuki reads manga or watches anime!
  • Mochizuki is straightforward about the difficulties of reintegration for Japanese Americans after the camps closed. (If you read my post about Uchida’s The Bracelet, you’ll see I was critical of the omission in that case.) For any JA kids reading this book, I think this brief reference toward the end creates another space for conversations about our family histories, much like Mochizuki’s use of “Camp,” discussed above.

What I learned:

  • I vaguely knew sports were one of the pastimes Japanese Americans had access to in the camps, but this is the first book I’ve read dedicated solely to the topic. I don’t personally know any Japanese Americans who play baseball and I’m not sure if it continues to be a significant activity in the JA community. I think I’ll add ‘history of baseball in Japanese America’ to my TBR. I’d really like to know if it continued to be a source of community building after the war, or if it petered out as formerly incarcerated JAs went their separate ways.

Questions I had:

  • Per the points raised above, I’d also like to know what kind of role, if any, baseball played in the Japanese American community prior to the war. The MC in Baseball Saved Us tells us he played some sports before being incarcerated, but it sounds like he did so in predominantly white/non-Japanese spaces, like P.E. or after-school teams. I wonder if any JA/Nikkei teams existed before the war, and if so, how and why they formed.
  • Is there a connection between JAs playing baseball and the history of baseball in Japan? My knowledge of sports history is approximately zero, so I’m not even sure which came first – baseball in Japan or baseball in JA communities. I’ve been thinking a bit about Kibei Nisei because I’m currently also reading Eiichiro Azuma’s Between Two Empires,**** and I wonder if they played any kind of role in introducing/mediating aspects of US/white culture to Japan. To tangent on a tangent, I’d love to see Nikkei/Nihonjin collaborate on a manga about the experiences of Kibei Nisei in pre-war/wartime Japan. (I know, I know, too many roads lead to manga in my world.) Interactions between diaspora Japanese and Japanese nationals have always fascinated me, probably because they’re a formative part of my own experiences, and I wish there was more Japanese-produced popular media on the topic.
  • What was the creation process of this book? Lee & Low Books, the publisher, has been one of the more vocal parties on the industry side in terms of advocating for marginalized writers and respectful representation. What was it like for Mochizuki to work with them? Were any major changes made to the story before publication?
  • What kind of preparation did Mochizuki do before writing this story? I believe his family was incarcerated (or perhaps interned, if they were Issei) at Minidoka. Did he rely mostly on family history and anecdotes, or did he also interview other formerly incarcerated JAs and consult JA/Nikkei-produced nonfiction sources? I’m not challenging the veracity of the story at all – I just have a personal interest in knowing how fellow JAs/Nikkeijin go about creating and telling our stories.
  • Who was Mochizuki’s intended audience? I mean, kids, sure, but I wonder if he was writing specifically for JA/Nikkei kids, or for non-Japanese audiences, or both? I didn’t see much of what I would label ‘pandering to whiteness’ in the text, except for omission of the word “white,” and this could have as much to do with the age of the audience as with their racial/cultural backgrounds.

Follow-up:

  • Mochizuki has written at least two other picture books, which I plan to purchase and read as finances allow. I also really need to finish his novel, Beacon Hill Boys, which I read about a third of before getting distracted by other books.
  • I should probably start reading some adult-focused JA/Nikkei fiction about the camps. My reading block for long-form, English-language prose fiction hasn’t gone away yet, so I’ve been sticking to children’s books, graphic novels, and a bit of nonfiction, but hopefully one of these days I feel like picking up a novel again. I have so many novels by Nikkei writers, both historical and contemporary, on my TBR!

*Main character, for anyone unfamiliar with book community lingo.

**His nickname is “Shorty,” but as a fellow short person, I find this way of referring to someone extremely dehumanizing and I won’t be using it in reference to him.

***See my post on The Bracelet for some concerns I raised about Yardley’s artistic choices.

****Eventually I’ll have a post about this book, but first I have to finish it. The sheer amount of information packed into each page is kind of destroying my brain right now.

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