By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
For Kai Vanderlip, a Tesla STEM High School student, a year-long school project turned into a mission to educate others about the history of Japanese Americans during World War II. The enterprising young person is the founder of the Day of Remembrance Japanese Incarceration Literature for Libraries, which for this year’s memorial delivered six picture books about the Japanese American Incarceration to 33 elementary schools in the Lake Washington School District, ultimately impacting over 14,000 kids.
It started in fifth grade, when Vanderlip and his fellow students were given the task of researching a subject in which they wanted to become an expert. A child of a Japanese American mother, one who has spent all of his life in Redmond, Vanderlip had learned about Japanese culture growing up—yet not too
much about that dark period in U.S. history.
“Nana and Mom suggested the incarceration [as a project topic] and said this is an important part of our history,” Vanderlip recalled.
In Vanderlip’s family, both his great-grandfather’s brother and brother-in-law, Japanese language teachers in Kauai, Hawaii during the war, were incarcerated. Both men and their relatives were moved from camp to camp in multiple states, including Tule Lake, Calif. and Camp Livingston, La.
At the same time, illustrating the deep unfairness of the incarceration policy, Vanderlip’s great grandfather was, who was not incarcerated, a master sergeant in the military intelligence service at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, serving his country.
The thirst to know more about this history, and to share with others, stuck with Vanderlip far beyond the original project. Back in sixth grade, he reached out to Lori Matsukawa from KING 5 News. He was watching her series, “Prisoners in Their Own Land: The story behind the story,” and wanted advice about “at what age should this material be taught?” According to Vanderlip, Matsukawa answered, “As early as possible. It’s never too late. I think kindergarteners can understand the idea of: There was a time in history where it wasn’t cool to have a Japanese name.”
Vanderlip’s project culminated in 2020, during the pandemic, when he found himself with extra time on his hands and searching for a way to give back to the community. “I thought I should expand off of Japanese American incarceration … Right around that time, horrific [anti-]Asian American hate crimes were happening, and I wanted to spread awareness.” Vanderlip’s mission coalesced in the form of a book project “to educate students from a young age about these civil rights violations that were so unjustly enforced onto the Japanese in World War II, so that they can grow up to be more knowledgeable, and spot, and speak up, against intolerance.”
From his own research, and with the assistance of librarians Leann Clawson of Ben Franklin Elementary and Kristy Reagan of Peter Kirk Elementary, a list was formed of picture books about the incarceration experience that would be appropriate for elementary-aged students. Amy Waldroup, Lake Washington School District lead librarian, approved all the titles before they were disseminated for the 2022 Day of Remembrance.
“Ben Franklin Elementary hosted the soft launch, in grades second, third, fourth, and fifth, which was a huge success,” said Vanderlip in the letter he sent to schools. “The fifth graders even gave one of the stories an applause, which had never happened before.”
Books selected were:
- “The Cat Who Chose to Dream” by Loriene Honda
- “Fish for Jimmy” by Katie Yamasaki
- “Fred Korematsu Speaks Up” by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi
- “The Bracelet” by Yoshiko Uchida and Joanna Yardley
- “Desert Diary” by Michael O. Tunnell
- “A Place Where Sunflowers Grow” by Amy Lee-Tai
Vanderlip initially intended to go in-person to the schools and read the books out loud to students and lead discussion. However, due to COVID-19 concerns, this quickly became inadvisable, so Vanderlip, along with participating librarians and teachers, switched to a virtual format. Vanderlip also developed his own lesson plans for “The Cat Who Chose to Dream” and “Fish for Jimmy,” which he shared with schools.
As the project grew, so did the number of helpers. TESLA High School’s Associate Principal, Cynthia Burt, an administrator of the Equity Club, partnered with Vanderlip. The project is now an action item supporting Glenn Singleton’s “Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools.”
Vanderlip receives continuous support from his family, including aunts in Hawaii, who send him related articles whenever they find one. The project received a great amount of local financial support, including grants from the Kirkland Youth Council, City of Kirkland, and Lake Washington Schools Foundation, as well as discounts from Brick and Mortar Books in Redmond Town Center and Martin Pearl Publishing.
Now a high school junior, the project freshly launched, and further outreach in the works, Vanderlip keeps busy with other activities emphasizing diversity. He is part of TESLA’s equity board, which runs the school’s equity club, which has the goal of spreading awareness about racism.
With the book project, Vanderlip wanted “to create a more equitable environment across the school district … by educating kids when they’re young.” He doesn’t feel that enough people are aware of the circumstances of Japanese Americans sent into the camps in World War II, and hopes that, in conjunction with this year, the 80th anniversary of the Day of Remembrance, his project will support the Japanese phrase “nidoto nai yoni”—let it not happen again.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.