An Interview With Barry Denenberg About The Journal of Ben Uchida
Barry Denenberg answers questions about his My Name Is America novel The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559, Mirror Lake Internment Camp, California, 1942.
Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D.: The Journal of Ben Uchida is your fourth book in the Dear America and My Name Is America series. What can you tell us about the student letters you receive concerning the books? Is there one thing they ask more than any other?
Barry Denenberg: The letters I receive are nothing short of inspirational. Although it is difficult to generalize, they ask why I began writing, and what books I'm working on now, and they talk about how much they enjoyed whatever book they read. There is a special place in my heart for the numerous letters I get from kids who say they don't like to read history, but my book changed their minds.
RFA and LMP: You include an unusual dedication in this book. Could you explain its significance?
BD: I dedicated the book to all the kids who take the time to write to me because they have been a real connection to what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. I have some on-going correspondence with a number of them, and the letters truly mean a lot to me. I wanted to acknowledge that.
RFA and LMP: Why did you choose to send Ben Uchida and his family to a fictional internment camp instead of one of the ten that really existed?
BD: I chose a fictional internment camp (originally I was going to do Manzanar) because I wanted to be able to bring in aspects that were found at many camps. For instance, protest was more an issue at one or two of the camps and I wanted to include that.
RFA and LMP: Playing baseball, and stories and letters about baseball, run through Ben's journal. What was it about this sport that made it so important?
BD: The baseball game was something that came to me one night when I was thinking about how American these kids were and how to convey that to youngsters today. What better way than baseball: a truly American sport that shows the best and worst of us.
RFA and LMP: Camp newspapers were mentioned fairly often in The Journal of Ben Uchida. How important were these newspapers in your own research for this book?
BD: While the camp newspapers were not especially important in my research, I felt that, like sports, they were an important aspect of daily life in the internment camps. I included them for that reason and because I wanted the reader to see the "normal" side of life in the camps with dances, meetings, and other activities.
RFA and LMP: Was there a "correct" answer to questions #27 and #28 on the Application for Leave Clearance? No one at Mirror Lake seemed to know what to answer. What was the government looking for?
BD: Pragmatically the correct answer to questions #27 and #28 was "yes" and "yes." The government was looking for a declaration of loyalty from those in the camps and "yes" on these two questions was that declaration. Of course, it was presented in the most unbelievably confusing manner, and the internees rightly feared giving almost any answer.
RFA and LMP: Did you find any information in your research that surprised you? Frightened you? What did you find in your research that affected you most?
BD: I was struck by two things in my research. One was the economic underpinnings of the internment camps. That is to say, to some degree, the Japanese were rounded up because their agricultural holdings in California were so large and profitable that people wanted to take them over for nothing or next to nothing. This was a disturbing discovery about my country's motives. Secondly, I was struck to discover that Japanese American orphan children and infants were rounded up and kept segregated from the "regular" camp internees. This was a bit much for me.
RFA and LMP: If you could ask young readers of Ben's journal one question after they finished reading your book, what would that question be?
BD: What is an American?
This interview was conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.