We Are Not Free by Traci Chee – Book Review

Title: We Are Not Free

Author: Traci Chee

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers

Release Date: September 1, 2020

RATING: 4.5 Stars

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II (WWII), the United States shifts from viewing Japanese immigrants (Issei) and Japanese-Americans citizens (Nisei) with suspicion and scorn and decidedly begins viewing them as the enemy. As a result, over 100,000 Japanese, including U.S. citizens, are incarcerated in camps across the West. When escorted to detention camps, the group and their respective families are forced to abandon their homes, jobs, and dreams. Fourteen of these prisoners include a near-inseparable group of teenagers from San Francisco’s Japantown. These teens must fight every day to stick together, keep hope alive, and persist in the face of racism and unspeakable treatment at the hands of their own government. Yet, the odds are stacked against them, and by the end of their incarceration, the losses they endure through the experience change them forever.

Traci Chee’s fictional account of Japanese incarceration in WWII in We Are Not Free is a comprehensive and deeply poignant telling of this shameful chapter in U.S. history. Chee’s narrative utilizes the perspectives of Japantown teens to develop a sweeping story that illuminates the destructiveness and injustice of Japanese incarceration. Chee’s ability to include so much detail and emotion through each perspective invoked is a testament to her writing acumen. Each teen’s voice is heard through their individualized story, and each stands on its own. The narrative’s full power is felt by the way it brings those voices together. Their collective experience makes it impossible to ignore the realities of the incalculable devastation they suffer at the hands of the U.S. government. The characters’ arcs highlight this loss as they separate and start anew. Those same arcs drive to the heart of readers because she excels at using them to probe at challenging themes, such as loyalty and American identity. While the characters grapple with the injustice and prejudice they face, readers are also forced to grapple with understanding that painful history and what it reveals about the country.

We Are Not Free will certainly become a classroom staple, besting all novels that touch upon this disgraceful history. Chee’s account demands readers consider this ugly chapter in the country’s history and its connection to others like it. The big questions it poses and even bigger themes it explores lend itself perfectly to a cross-curricular study of the time period as well as a literary analysis of the narrative. The Japantown teens will find a lasting place in teachers’ and students’ hearts. So that we remember. So that we refuse to allow it to happen again.

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and publisher, HMH Books for Young Readers, for an eARC of this book!

Classroom Applications

  • Cross-curricular Study – Teach the novel in conjunction with a nonfiction study of World War II. It could focus on different perspectives of Japanese incarceration, theaters of war, or various WWII experiences.
  • Literature Circles – Use the novel as part of a study about World War II, especially one that focuses on multiple perspectives of the war.
  • Book Pairing – Pair the book with another novel about Japanese incarceration or the Holocaust to create a thought-provoking unit that captures multiple perspectives on this global conflict.

Nonfiction Connections: The list below outlines topics that will enrich your students’ understanding of the novel.

  • WWII
  • Japanese Incarceration (WWII)
  • Japanese Incarceration Camps
  • 442nd Regimental Combat Team
  • 100th Infantry Battalion
  • 1399 Engineer Construction Battalion

Book Companions: The following are great books to pair with We Are Not Free. In parenthesis are the specific aspects students could explore when synthesizing across the texts.

  • They Called Us Enemy by George Takei (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)
  • Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)
  • When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (Narrative Structure, Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)
  • Night by Elie Wiesel (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)
  • Grenade by Alan Gratz (Nonfiction Connections, Themes)
  • On the Horizon by Lois Lowry (Nonfiction Connections, Themes)

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