The Journal of Ben Uchida Discussion Guide
- Grades: 3–5
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
For his fourth book in the Dear America/My Name Is America series, Barry Denenberg depicts one of America's darkest secrets — the imprisonment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans over a period of about four years during World War II. He tells the story of life in the Mirror Lake Internment Camp through the eyes of twelve-year-old Ben Uchida. Denenberg says, "Two-thirds of the 110,000 Japanese Americans imprisoned were American citizens. This makes it the most widespread U.S. government action against its own citizens in our history. Two-thirds were in their early twenties or younger. Nearly six thousand babies were born in the camps. The internment experience was a family experience. Kids were the central focus of the story. It would, I thought, be best to see it through their eyes."
Through Ben Uchida's eyes, young readers today can experience being an American citizen in 1942 one minute, and an enemy the next. The possessions of the Japanese Americans were confiscated; families were issued numbered identification tags to wear; and they were forced to board trains and be taken to one of the ten internment camps located in some of the most desolate parts of the United States. In these "cell blocks" as Ben called them, families were forced to live imprisoned for up to three and a half years. The Journal of Ben Uchida focuses the spotlight on a sad and shameful episode in American history. Through the anger and humiliation, Ben's family manages to survive. Friends, baseball, strong family bonds, and the resilience of the human spirit give the Uchida family the power to make it through.
It was a Sunday. We had been playing touch football all day. On the way home, people were looking at me. I never heard of Pearl Harbor but I figured it must be around here somewhere. At dinner that night, my sister Naomi asked Papa why the Japanese had dropped bombs on American troops and ships. He sadly shook his head. "Nihon baka da ne" — the Japanese have done a foolish thing.
Mama made me go to school the next day. While I was getting off the bus, this fat old lady who had been looking at me the whole way asked if I was Chinese or Japanese. I said I was American, and she spit at me and said, "Go back to Japan, where you belong." That's a laugh. I don't even know where Japan is. Everyone at school was staring at me too. I never thought I looked different from the other kids. Now my face was the face of the enemy.
Later that day, after I came home from school, two men came to the house. They questioned Papa - even showed him badges. Mama said that the men were going to take Papa away for a while. That's just what she said, like she was telling us the weather for tomorrow. Cloudy with a chance of kidnapping. The men searched our house — tore it apart — but Mama and Papa stood silently frozen in place. We didn't cry when Papa left because we knew that would just make it harder for him and Mama.
After Papa had been taken away, the rest of the Uchida family were assigned a number — 13559 — that they wore on their clothing and luggage. The government sold all their worldly possessions for pennies before they forced then onto a train that transported to an unknown destination. The landscape was desolate — no trees, no grass, no hills or ocean — only dust and hastily constructed barracks, mess halls, a "wreck" room/classroom, and a baseball field. Many of the survivors have said that baseball helped to preserve their sanity. After more than two years imprisonment, Mr. Uchida was returned to his family at Mirror Lake. But he was different. Naomi called it a "window pane" look because it was like he looked right through you.
Sometimes I don't even think of him as Papa. The papa I knew was the one the FBI took away. I don't know what happened in that place in Montana, but they took the life out of my papa and left me the shell.
The Uchidas left Mirror Lake eventually and went back to San Francisco — to a house that had been burned to the ground, to a life forever tainted.
Thinking About the Book
- If you had to pick one person to be your friend in the internment camp, would you chose Charles Hamada or Ben Uchida? Explain why.
- Why does baseball become so important to Ben? Why do you think Papa had changed so much when he was reunited with his family?
- Throughout Ben's journal there are hints that Mike Masuda might not be a trustworthy person. Go back through the journal and see if you can find some of the early clues that tell you about Mike.
- Papa says that "The family must stick together to remain strong, like the chopsticks." Ben says his father had told him the chopstick story thirty thousand times. What is the chopstick story?
- Some of the Japanese-American internees stayed in the camps for three years or more. Ben's journal covers approximately ten months. Based on how Ben changes over this amount of time, how do you think Ben would change if he had to stay for the three year period? How about Naomi, Mama, and Papa?
- Using the Historical Note in the book and the interview with author Barry Denenberg, list three reasons why the U.S. government chose to imprison over 100,000 Japanese Americans.
- Imagine you were placed in the internment camp. Write a letter to your best friend back home describing life there.
- The Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team fought bravely in eight major campaigns. Investigate how these brave men fought for a nation that imprisoned their families. Learn more about World War II and Japanese Americans on Scholastic.com. Read about the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team and its heroism in World War II.
- In 1988, President Ronald Reagan apologized and ordered the government to pay $20,000 restitution to the living internees. Read the full text of President Reagan's Redress Act speech. (The President spoke on August 10, 1988 in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building. H.R. 442, approved that day, was assigned Public Law No. 100-383.) If you or your family had spent several years in an internment camp, do you think you would be satisfied? What do you think he should have said in his apology?
- Read other fictional and informational accounts of Japanese Americans during World War II. Graham Salisbury's Under the Blood Red Sun is an award-winning historical fiction account of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Other fine accounts include Ken Mochizuki's picture storybook Baseball Saved Us (illustrated by Dom Lee), and books by Yoshiko Uchida, Jerry Stanley, Sheila Hamanaka, and Michael Tunnell. Even though they are about different places and camps, are there similarities? Compare and contrast the way that Japanese Americans are treated in each book.
- On June 15, two months after her father was taken away by government agents, Naomi hangs a picture of him on the wall to remind the family what he looks like. She has drawn the picture from memory. Draw of picture of someone you haven't seen for awhile from memory. Then compare it to that person's photograph. How similar are they? Why didn't Ben's family have any pictures of their relatives with them?
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.