Books and Freedom

Love in the Library – written by Maggie Tokuda-Hall, illustrated by Yas Imamura
Candlewick Press, 2022

Two bookish young people fall in love in a library.  In Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Yas Imamura’s picture, book, based on events in the lives of the author’s grandparents, that library is not a quiet and safe space of contemplation.  Tama works in the library of the Minidoka internment camp during World War II, when President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 implemented the unjust policy of incarcerating Japanese Americans, both citizens and residents, because of the alleged threat they posed to the United States.  (This topic is also covered in the children’s book A Scarf for Keiko.)  When a young man, George, becomes a regular library patron, Tama finds her job enhanced with greater meaning.  This is a book about two people who fall in love against a background of hatred, finding in one another not only consolation, but evidence of hope for the future.

The books endpapers depict fences and barbed wire, and readers learn the basic facts surrounding Tama and George’s imprisonment.  The author and illustrator depict Minidoka realistically, neither minimizing nor embellishing its horrible conditions. Tama had been “relocated,” to use the misleading euphemism, from the West Coast to the Idaho desert, where extremes and heat and cold, along with spartan living conditions, were a cruel daily reality.  In understated text which conveys Tama’s emotions, Tokuda-Hall captures the inner life of a frightened and frustrated young woman: “Constant questions. Constant worries. Constant fear.”

Yet there is also a sense of community, as well as Tama’s liberating access to a rich imagination.  Outside, men and boys play baseball. Inside, while she helps select books for others, and sits immersed in them herself.  “Tama loved books,” a matter-of-fact statement, becomes a key to her preservation of life before the war and maybe after, as well.  There is underlying sadness, and tension between the joy Tama still finds in reading and the pointlessness of life within the fences and watchtowers of the camp.

George is not a knight-in-shining armor rescuing a distressed maiden.  But he is constant, the same adjective used to characterize Tama’s fears.  Imamura’s pictures mix reality and its alternative, literary dreams and dreams of a future.  Figures from fairy tales and medieval lore emerge from the pages of a book. 

Tama and George sit across from one another at a table amid stacks of books, while outside the window the guard tower is clearly visible.  They both search for the right words to express their anger, buried beneath the surface of accommodation to circumstances beyond their control.  “Everyone at Minidoka knew. ‘I try not to complain. I know this isn’t fair…I try not to be afraid.’” The composition of images also reflects this need for a sense of control, as Tama and George join hands across two open books on an otherwise empty surface.

The concluding pages present the vision of a new postwar life for the young couple and their family, but also a two-page spread returning to their past in the camp.  In an almost utopian scene, a guard holds a rifle, but an elderly couple socialize, children happily play, and Tama and George embrace.  The author comments, “That was humans doing what humans do best,” a modest summation of her tribute to family, community, and anyone struggling to survive oppression. 

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