"To the men and women of Asian and Pacific Islander
descent who served in the U.S. armed forces and defended America with
little or no recognition.
— Dedication of Heroes, by author Ken Mochizuki
From The Asian Reporter, V13, #14 (April 1-7,
2003), page 13.
You kids should be playing something besides war
Written by Ken Mochizuki
Illustrated by Dom Lee
Lee & Low Books, 1995
Paperback $6.95, Hardback $15.95, 30 pages
15 illustrations (full-page images scratched on beeswax
layer, oil paint for color)
Recommended for children age 4 and over
Heroes is another homerun by Seattle writer Ken
Mochizuki and New Jersey artist Dom Lee. The book is the middle of their
three collaborations (including the earlier Baseball Saved Us, and
their later Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story). Heroes
is Messrs. Mochizuki and Lee’s homage to a Japanese-American generation’s
war-time gallantry and extraordinary contribution to American democracy.
The book presents an important children’s story in the same way, and for
all the same reasons as Baseball Saved Us and Passage to Freedom.
Briefly, those reasons and those children’s lessons are as follows:
The back story
In December 1941, Imperial Japan attacked U.S. military bases in the
American Pacific Territory of Hawai’i. Days after, President Franklin
Delano Roosevelt declared war on Emperor Hirohito and ordered West Coast
Japanese Americans out of their homes, their schools, their jobs and
businesses. Families were transported under U.S. Army guard to desolate
prison camps, where they were interned for the duration of the Second
World War on an awful assumption of mass disloyalty and potential
sabotage. In the face of this, according to the author, about "50,000
Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent served in the armed forces
of the United States. Among the most notable was the 442nd Regimental
Combat Team, an all-Japanese American regiment that … became one of the
most highly decorated units in United States Army history."
In August of 1945, The Emperor surrendered. Families were railroaded or
bussed back, war veterans returned home, without a word (including a
string of U.S. Supreme Court denials) until President Ronald Reagan
finally acknowledged our nation’s wrong, and formally apologized, four
Author Ken Mochizuki tells a terrific children’s story, artist Dom
Lee illustrates a timelessly important one. Their tale is a modern one —
tender and tough and most of all: true. Pink princesses, studs on steeds,
and foul-breath dragons, are out. Modest but succinct heroism, quiet
confidence in democracy and cultural integrity are better. As in Messrs.
Mochizuki and Lee’s earlier work, these qualities, so essential not only
to Japanese America, are portrayed with sincerity and certainty. No one
shouts, no one’s shot, not a single spectacular car-chase scene.
Heroes is told through the eyes and voice of an apparently regular
eight- to 10-year-old boy. He wears a goldenrod polo and white sneakers.
His name is Donnie. He calls his father Dad. He has a circle of best buds
who want to play war, while he wishes they could play football. "Get
moving, Donnie," his friend Zach tells him after the gang decides it’s
war play, again. "You’re the bad guy, and we’re going to hunt you
down." Donnie protests "No I’m not. My Dad was in our Army and
he fought in Italy and France. And my Uncle Yosh was in Korea." Zach
says no way. "How could your dad or uncle be in our
army?" Tori asks. Ouch.
Donnie finally asks his father "How come we’re always the bad
guys?" He also asks for a token, something he can take to his friends
to prove his loyalty, his goodness. "You kids should be playing
something besides war," his father says. When our boy asks Uncle Yosh
about Korea, his Uncle quietly replies "Real heroes don’t
The story’s tension is ultimately resolved, Donnie’s friends get
set (wowed) straight, and, most importantly, Donnie’s confidence and
dignity are righted.
Heroes is just what Mr. Mochizuki and Mr. Lee promise in their
title. It is executed with the same simple courage and uncommon grace
shared by both storyteller’s and hero’s ancestral bones. This is an
essential American story, tough and tender and true — everything
children need from a story. Our stories.
Heroes is a winner of an International Reading Association, Teacher’s
Choices Award; a Smithsonian Institute Notable Books for Children
citation; a San Francisco Chronicle "Editor’s Choice,"
among other honors. The publisher, Lee & Low Books, makes available a
free online teacher’s guide at <www.leeandlow.com/teachers>.
On Saturday, April 12, author Mochizuki will read from his children’s
books about everyday heroes, including Baseball Saved Us, Passage
to Freedom, and Heroes. The reading will take place at 1:30pm
at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) on the Fourth Floor. SAM is located at 100
University Street in Seattle. The event is free with admission to SAM. For
information, call (206) 654-3100 or visit <www.seattleartmuseum.org>.