Earlier this week, Founder and Publisher of Tu Books Stacy Whitman collected a list of children’s books about the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.
It reminded me of Allen Say’s Home of the Brave, and the work I had done as part of my graduate degree. I thought I’d share the short essay and image here, as another potential entrance point in discussing how children’s books and illustration can be used to explore complex political issues, and a haunting image of what we’re really talking about when politicians start suggesting registration and/or internment. (Forgive the subpar image that is included. I encourage you to seek out the book to see the imagery of the work as a whole.)
Respectful Minimalism in Home of the Brave
In Allen Say’s Home of the Brave, a man grapples with a darker part of America’s past – the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. Nikolajeva and Scott note that, “The tradition of reduced or minimal setting in picturebooks is closely connected with the post-World War II ‘hyperrealism’ in children’s literature …A full depiction of pictorial space is…superfluous, since the reader’s attentions must be fully occupied by the character and just a few details” (63). For Say, writing a book that grapples with WWII in a post-WWII tradition, the use of white space and air frames bring a respectful focus to the most important characters in Home of the Brave – the internees.
Home of the Brave never uses a double-spread, and instead places the text on the verso and an image with an airframe on the recto. The images are generally of darker blues and greys, and the air frame and paper color is more of a cream than a stark white. The air frame on page 23, showing the children open-mouthed and in the middle of chanting the word, “home” creates a respectful distance between the viewer and the internees. If Say had chosen to open up this image into a full double-spread of interned children, the effect would have been dramatic. It would have certainly highlighted the shear number of children living in the internment camps and potentially made the reader feel like they were there, too. Moebius notes that, “Framed, the illustration provides a limited glimpse ‘into’ a world. Unframed, the illustration constitutes a total experience, the view from ‘within’” (141).
However, giving the reader this “view from within” would also potentially overwhelm the reader to the point of distraction from the character’s faces. The children internees would have become nameless once again — described by the most obvious features of their heritage instead of being really seen as children that long for the life they had before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the internment.
Ultimately, in creating an air frame, Say gives the reader room to reflect upon the disruption of those Japanese American lives in a way that doesn’t strip the internee of their identity once more.
Air frame – A thick, colorless, border around an illustration.
Recto – For a book that is read left to right, the recto is the page on the right when the book is opened.
Verso – For a book that is read left to right, the verso is the page on the left when the book is opened.
Moebius, William. “Introduction to Picturebook Codes.” Children’s Literature: The Development of Criticism. Ed. Peter Hunt. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Nikolajeva, Maria and Carole Scott. How Picturebooks Work. New York: Garland Publishing, 2001. Print.
Say, Allen. Home of the Brave. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books, 2002. Print.