‘Respectable’ biography on Norman Mineta falls short of potential

Enemy Child: The Story of Norman Mineta, a Boy Imprisoned in a Japanese American Internment Camp During World War II

By Andrea Warren (New York: Margaret Ferguson Books/Holiday House, 2019, 224 pp., $22.99, hardcover)

When I was in elementary school, I was introduced to the American Revolution through the biography of Johnny Tremain, which may have stoked my passion for both history and books about real people. As a result, when I heard Holiday House, a publisher of books for young readers, was releasing a biography of Norman Mineta, former congressman and presidential cabinet member, I was extremely excited that children could be introduced to the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans through the life of a remarkable Nisei.

Written by Andrea Warren, a Robert F. Sibert Honor author, “Enemy Child: The Story of Norman Mineta, a Boy Imprisoned in a Japanese American Internment Camp During World War II,” is a faithful recounting of the familiar beats of this historic event. However, I didn’t get the rush of understanding history through the highly personal and individualized experiences of our protagonist. As the author of a biography on entrepreneur George Aratani, I can empathize with the challenge of writing about a person who is still alive. It’s difficult to take certain creative and interpretive liberties, especially of someone so esteemed in his community.

However, a biography aimed for children and even adults requires a strong narrative thread, one that I unfortunately did not discover here. Even the packaging of the book in a hard cover coffee-table format with black-and-white photos that the subject is not featured in makes me question the audience. Is it children? I don’t think a coffee-table book is an accessible format. Is it adults who are fans of Mineta? I don’t think the content will reveal anything new for this readership. Is it adults who want to know more about the incarceration? The book provides a solid introduction to Japanese American history, but adults may desire a more sophisticated examination of this time period.

The book does come alive in the sections when Mineta as a young boy first enters Santa Anita Assembly Center in California and later Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. I wish that the book, from the beginning, centered on this experience. Instead of photographs, I think illustrations would have helped personalize the narrative. Many people who have followed Mineta know of his experience as a Boy Scout and meeting another Scout from the outside, Alan Simpson of Cody, Wyo., who later became a U.S. senator. To dive deeper into this friendship and connection might have made the biography more relevant to today’s generation.

And last of all, the use of the term, “internment camp” versus “concentration camp” is a controversial issue that has recently been revisited due to the detention of immigrant children in sites like Fort Sill in Okla. At the end of the book, the author explains the decision to use “internment” “out of respect for those who suffered so grievously in the Nazi concentration camps.” I again understand this sentiment, but as this is a book designed for education, is using euphemistic language the best option? It seems that it is a continuation of Japanese American accommodation for the mainstream public’s discomfort, rather than a clear-eyed uncovering of what happened in America during World War II.

“Enemy Child” is a respectable and honoring biography, and I sincerely hope that educators find it useful as a resource in their classrooms. But I think that it could have been so much more.

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