Books that Keep the Past Alive – Stories of Japanese Internment Camps and Baseball

by Emily Demuth Ishida for The Storied Past

Philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” For most of us, knowledge of the past does not come from textbooks but from stories – stories told when a few generations gather around the dining table, stories told in movies or on the flickering TV set in the family room, stories captured in historical novels that pull us into a bygone era.

Years ago, I read Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s memoir Farewell to Manzanar and was incredulous that discover that the United States ran concentration camps during World War II and locked up American citizens. That Japanese Americans were considered a threat to national security made no sense to my thirteen-year-old mind. My German American ancestors had suffered no such indignity.

Little did I know then that this thread of history would figure repeatedly in my life: when I married a Japanese citizen; when we stumbled upon a former internment camp while vacationing in Arizona; when our children met Daniel Tani, an astronaut and scientist, Japanese American, and Illinois resident, and saw photos of his mother in a camp; when we rejoiced when the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 offered $20,000 in restitution to those internees who were still alive.

Baseball Saved Us, by Ken Mochizuki

One year our family marked February 19, the day in 1942 that President Franklin Roosevelt had issued Executive Order 9066, which sent thousands of Japanese Americans from the west coast to internment camps, by reading the book Baseball Saved Us, by Ken Mochizuki (1993).

The opening lines of this picture book by Mochizuki set the scene perfectly for my young children:

One day, my dad looked out at the endless desert and decided then and there to build a baseball field.

He said people needed something to do in Camp. We weren’t in a camp that was fun, like summer camp. Ours was in the middle of nowhere, and we were behind a barbed-wire fence. Soldiers with guns made sure we stayed there, and the man in the tower saw everything we did, no matter where we were.

The young narrator eventually plays baseball under the watchful eyes of the guard, and that memory stays with him in later life outside of the camp.

A Diamond in the Desert, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

A Diamond in the Desert by Kathryn Fitzmaurice (2013) tells a fictionalized story of a baseball team at the Gila River Relocation Center (an internment camp that was located not far from Phoenix, Arizona) that plays against the  Arizona State Champions.

This middle-grade novel pulls the reader into the story of loss and uncertainty as it follows a twelve-year-old boy named Tetsu, his mother, and his younger sister Kimi (his father has been sent elsewhere to be questioned), as they adapt to the challenges and difficulties of life in an internment camp.

Barbed Wire Baseball, by Marissa Moss

Barbed Wire Baseball by Marissa Moss, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu (2013) recounts the actual history on which A Diamond in the Desert is based, telling about Kenichi Zenimura, the father of Japanese American baseball, who built the Gila River baseball field that became a symbol of hope for the Japanese Americans imprisoned there.

On one level, these books are sports stories, with athletes striving to do their best on the playing field no matter what else is happening in their lives. Many young readers can relate to that scenario.

But the books also keep the past alive, letting young readers know that at one time in U.S. history, immigrants from another country, many of them U.S. citizens, were ostracized and locked up merely for looking like “the enemy.”

I hope that other readers will feel the same outrage I did as a young person. May all of us strive to imagine a world in which that past is never repeated.



Emily Demuth Ishida and her sister Hilda Demuth-Lutze are co-authors of the middle-grade historical novels, Plank Road Summer and Plank Road Winter, set in southeastern Wisconsin, and Hattie’s War, a Civil War–era novel for middle-grade readers set in Milwaukee. When not writing books with her sister Hilda, Emily works as a library and computer lab assistant in a culturally diverse elementary school. Her family celebrates Japanese holiday traditions, while also commemorating difficult times in Japanese history. A member of SCBWI, Ms. Ishida lives in Elmhurst, Illiniois.

[Featured image at the head of this post is from a print by Japanese-born illustrator Yuko Shimizu from the cover of Barbed Wire Baseball.]

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  1. I ‘m thankful that there are more and more picture books addressing difficult parts of the past for younger readers.

  2. Carol Johnson

    A good children’s book is “In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson” by Bette Bao Lord.

    • Emily Demuth

      I brought this home from the school library where I work the day before you commented. I may have to post once I finish it.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing these with #diversekidlit! I also didn’t learn about internment until I was an adult, so it was important to me to include it in my fourth grade US history curriculum.

    A Diamond in the Desert is new to me. Have you read Dash by Kirby Larson? I have a post with several other picture books too:

    • Sandy Brehl

      I’ve read DASH (Larson). I thought about it often as I read A Diamond in the Desert this weekend, which was new to me, too. Thank you, Emily, for the recommendation, and I second Katie’s motion to read DASH.
      Apart from the topic of internment camps, readers would also enjoy Larson’s DUKE, set in the USA during WWII.

    • Emily Demuth

      I haven’t read Dash yet, but I’ve read a couple of Kirby Larson’s other books, including The Friendship Doll. My daughter and I recently saw an exhibit of the Japanese dolls on which the book is based. Another interesting snippet of history!

  4. I only knew of Barbed Wire Baseball, so thank you for making this list. I have pinned it, so I can reference it later.

    Thank you for sharing on Diverse Children’s Book Link Up! My link up is:

  5. These books are so important to fill the gap that is left after a one or two paragraphs in a textbook that an event happened. Historical fiction brings the reader into the past to understand how people reacted and felt. If the students today don’t fully understand or are exposed to ramifications of certain decisions, it is too easy to forget and possibly happen again. My MG historical fiction, THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM, was written after my daughter came home from school asking me to tell her class about people under the famous mushroom cloud in Hiroshima. One of those people was my mother. I’m grateful for all the wonderfully talented authors who have made historical fiction what it is today in and out of the classrooms.

    • Congratulations, Kathleen, on the upcoming release of your historical fiction. I tried to reserve it on library hold only to discover that it won’t release until August. I’m really looking forward to reading it.
      Congratulations, too, on raising a daughter who understands that history is not a recitation of facts, but a complex intersection of lives, and their stories carry personal perspectives but also broad truths. I hope you visited that classroom! (Retired teacher speaking…)
      Thanks for reading, and for alerting us to your new book. I’ve got it tabbed on my August calendar.

      • Thank you so much, Sandy. Yes, I did speak to her class. Six years later I still present there and have added other middle schools 🙂 It has been so rewarding.
        I enjoy your posts. After you read it, I’d love to know what you thought about it.

    • Emily Demuth Ishida

      Kathleen, I look forward to reading THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM.
      My husband’s extended family lives in Hiroshima now, and we’ve visited the Peace Park and Museum several times. Reading and hearing the stories of the hibakusha is a difficult and emotional experience — thank you for keeping the story alive for a new generation of readers.

      • Emily, thank you so very much. My mom passed away last year and my family and I went to Hiroshima to honor her at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Hall. Standing in the same spot where my mother witnessed such horror, was heartbreaking. But we also visited areas, (such as Miyajima Island) that my mother loved and had often spoke about the beauty in her hometown.

  6. It’s a little strange to comment on my own post, but the Grand Marshal of our Elmhurst Memorial Day parade had a story worth sharing. Richard Agemura spent four years in Japanese-American internment camps with his family. Since he was a boy at the time, I asked whether he had played baseball in the camps, and he said that he had! After the war, his life became even more difficult. Even though he was a 15-year-old American citizen, he and his family were forcibly repatriated back to Japan in exchange for U.S. prisoners of war. He spent many hungry days in Japan before he was able to go through a passport application process, find a sponsor, and return to the United States in May 1949. Less than two years later, he was drafted into the US Army and sent to Korea. Yes, after being interned, and shipped back to Japan in a prisoner exchange, he served his country during the Korean War. That Sergeant Richard Agemura can be proud of his service instead of bitter about his experience is certainly a testament to his character. I am honored to have met him.

  7. Emily, yes, what an honor to have met him. His resolve, determination, and strength of character is why we need to keep these stories alive. To know the people behind the history texts, not to blame, but to prevent certain acts from happening again. Sergeant Agemur’s story touched my heart. Thank you for sharing it.

  8. Emily, stories like yours touch us in ways that feel so powerful and personal, even if we have no first-hand experience with the hardships or challenges from the lives of others. It’s why getting important stories and books into the hands of kids matters so much. Breaking down the walls of isolation (within narrow life experiences, within one-sided political views, within single cultural perspectives) is best accomplished through empathy- finding ourselves walking in the shoes of others. Kids do that amazingly well, when we give them the opportunity to do so.
    I wonder if you’re giving some thought to writing a version of his story?
    Thanks for sharing your encounter. It’s one I won’t forget. And thanks for sharing your thoughts, too, Kathleen.

    • I completely agree,Sandy. You’re very welcome.

      • Thank you, both Sandy and Kathleen, for your thoughts. I am very intrigued by Sergeant Agemura’s story, and may find a way to incorporate it into my current writing project. And I really want to research why the US and Allies would have been exchanging citizens for prisoners if we won the war. I thought it was an unconditional surrender. Seems that any story one hears just opens up an entire new avenue of exploration!

        • The point about prisoner exchange is significant. We had many German and some Japanese prisoners in US control at the end of the war. I am aware of many German POWs who chose to stay and applied to do so, many of whom became citizens. We certainly didn’t have to “ask” or bargain to release our European POWs.
          The research this will involve is major, but intriguing. Dig in, and open some doors and windows for us all!

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