There's a saying that, for the author's first or first few books, he/she should “write what you know.” When I worked as a print journalist in the 1980s, I covered the decade-long campaign that eventually convinced the U.S. government that its imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II was wrong.
So, in 1991, when publisher Philip Lee of Lee & Low Books suggested I write a picture book about playing baseball in the World War II internment camps for Japanese Americans, I knew about those “camps” already. Mr. Lee sent me a magazine article about a man who led his fellow Japanese Americans in building a baseball field while in a camp. He thought I could possibly write a nonfiction story about this man. However, I wanted a young hero who would not only hit home runs, but who would also experience the power of positive thinking — that if he could focus his mind, his body would follow. The result was my first book, Baseball Saved Us, published in 1993.
Baseball Saved Us almost never reached any readers. After the book was printed, the distributor refused to carry the book, saying that a book about the internment camps was “too depressing.” Lee & Low Books immediately found a new distributor, and Baseball Saved Us has sold about a half-million copies to date.
For my next book, Mr. Lee offered the idea of doing a story about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team; the all-Japanese-American World War II combat regiment that became one of the most decorated units in U.S. Army history.
A first draft I submitted included a flashback to a battle scene, where soldiers of the 442nd are sloshing around in mud and snow, fighting the Germans in France, shooting and being shot at, bleeding and dying. Mr. Lee responded to that draft by saying "no way" could that level of violence be contained in a picture book for young readers. For the subsequent drafts, I always had this image of the father and uncle making their point by showing up at Donnie's school wearing their old uniforms. I knew that would be the end of the story, but then I had to start from the beginning — get my characters to reach that ending. This became Heroes, published in 1995.
Even though Heroes is the shortest of all my books, and has the simplest plot, the story contains more themes than any of the others. Among those themes are: stereotypes of people of Asian descent; the importance of adult role models; criticism of the American mass media for its negative portrayal of Asians and its lack of portrayals of Americans of Asian descent; and the necessity of a family to pass down its legacy from one generation to the next.
During the end of 1994, the media began running stories about a diplomat from Japan who is credited with saving thousands of Polish Jews from the Holocaust. This was happening because the family of the late Consul Chiune Sugihara began spreading the story. I thought that the experience of this man and his family could become a picture book, but how would I write about subjects usually deemed unsuitable for young readers. Nazis? The Holocaust?
Then I read a newspaper article about the eldest son, Hiroki, and how he was five years old when his father was stationed in Lithuania in 1940. From a young boy's point of view, he recalled his father issuing the visas that would save thousands of lives. When I personally met Hiroki Sugihara in Seattle in 1995, he handed most of my research to me: a book written by his mother about the family's history. With more follow-up interviews with Hiroki over the phone, I had the story.
But a difficult question remained: How would I tell this story? I wanted to do it from a first-person point view, as I had with my previous books. However, Hiroki was only five years old at the time this story takes place, so he wouldn't understand everything going on around him. I could do it in third person, but that lacked the immediacy of the first-person voice. Then I finally found the solution: Hiroki would tell the story in retrospect, recounting that month in Lithuania — knowing now what he didn't know back then. Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story became a book in 1997.
A nonfiction story proved to be a unique challenge, because I couldn't make the story go the way I wanted it to go to make it more interesting or exciting. I had to stick to the facts. Then, the writer has to make those facts come to life as vividly as possible.
Even though Passage to Freedom contained the longest text, I had the shortest amount of time to write this book compared with the other two. But, that's the way it had to be in order for Passage to Freedom to be published by spring of 1997. I think most people will surprise themselves about what they can do with a deadline to meet.
Baseball Saved Us proved the easiest to write, and each book after that became more difficult, rather than the other way around. My latest book, Beacon Hill Boys, to be published by Scholastic Press this fall, is a young adult novel over 200 pages. If I thought writing 32-page page picture books was tough enough, I hadn't seen anything until I worked on a young adult novel for four years.
Oh, well, as a popular advertising slogan states: “Just do it.”