Every year during the long third quarter, my 4th-grade students and I read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. This pitch-perfect novel is most students’ first encounter with World War II. Driven by my students’ deep curiosity and interest, I have developed a repertoire of WWII lessons to supplement the novel. The subject matter can be tricky and complicated to teach, and for years, resources for elementary school students were scarce. I was thrilled to see the publication of three strong WWII picture books in the past year which discuss three different aspects of the war, but they all tell stories laced with the courage, faithfulness and reconciliation.
Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind by Cynthia Grady and Amiko Hirao
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, young Japanese-Americans were incarcerated with their families in internment camps. In the opening pages of Write to Me, young Katherine Tasaki tells her librarian, Miss Breed, that she is leaving, and Miss Breed gives her an addressed postcard, telling her to write. Thus begins a correspondence between Miss Breed and her young patrons. Told in both a narrative and an epistolary format, the book highlights Miss Breed’s courage and work on behalf of Japanese-Americans and shows the power of literature and story amid darkness. By focusing on the efforts of a single citizen, Write to Me brings a complicated and large issue to a level that is ideal for elementary-age students.
• Establish Background Knowledge—The front and back endpapers have historical photographs showing various aspects of the Japanese-Americans’ internment. Before reading the book, cover the captions and show a few of these pictures to your students. Ask them to tell you what they think is happening in the photographs. If you have not discussed the Pearl Harbor bombing, then briefly read an informational book or article to your students. Emphasize the surprise nature of the attack. Locate Japan and Hawaii on a world map. Ask students to explain why the Pearl Harbor base was an ideal target.
• Opinion Writing—President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. After reading Write to Me, give students an article or let them research the order and the resulting relocation camps. Without too much prior discussion, invite children to think about the order and the relocation camps. Instruct children to respond to the following prompt, “Do you think that President Roosevelt was right when he enforced Executive Order 9066? Why or why not?” Be sure to think about the mindset of the U.S. in early 1942. After students have formed opinions, encourage a few students to share their writing with the class. Or take it a step further and assign a “Dear President Roosevelt” letter-writing assignment where students share their opinion in a formal letter.
• Further Reading—Read other books discussing the relocation of Japanese-Americans like The Bracelet by Yoshiko Uchida and Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee. Make a list of the things you learn about the internment camps from the three different books. A few of my students wanted to read more, so I directed them to the novels Dash by Kirby Larson, Heart of a Champion by Ellen Schwartz and The Journal of Ben Uchida by Barry Denenberg. For a longer, more informational text, be sure to read Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference by Joanne Oppenheim.
• Write for Justice—Clara Breed mailed the children postcards, seeds, books, soap and thread. She visited them in the camps, but she was not content with her efforts. So she began to advocate for the rights of the children by writing magazine articles and “letters asking for a library and school for the imprisoned children.” Encourage students to talk to their parents about unjust situations in the U.S. and around the world. When each student has decided upon an issue, show them how to write an article or letter advocating for justice.
Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot’s World War II Story by Marc Tyler Nobleman and Melissa Iwai
In September of 1942, to prove that the continental U.S. could indeed be bombed, Japan sent pilot Nobuo Fujita in a small plane to bomb the woods near Brookings, Oregon. Only one of the two bombs exploded, causing a minor forest fire. A later attempt was also unsuccessful. Fast-forward 20 years. Fujita is invited to Brookings’ Memorial Day festival. Burdened by feelings of guilt and shame, Fujita decides to attend the festival, and what unfolds is a story of reconciliation and restoration. Visits between Japan and Brookings lasted until Fujita’s death in 1997. Sharing a little-known story of the war, Thirty Minutes Over Oregon fascinated my students and led to a complex discussion of personal and national loyalties.
• Cultural Knowledge—Fujita strapped his family’s 400-year-old samurai sword to his plane seat when he bombed the Oregon forest. Years later, he gave the sword to the town of Brookings and it is now located in the Brookings Public Library. Learn the cultural importance of the samurai sword by reading a few of the stories in Sword of the Samurai: Adventure Stories from Japan by Eric A. Kimmel and Michael Evans. I also found this article/worksheet from The Asian Art Museum to be very helpful.
• Write Around a Phrase—A WWII veteran responded to protestors who didn’t want Fujita to attend the Memorial Day festival in a newspaper article writing, “He was doing a job and we were doing a job.” Write this phrase on the board or a piece of chart paper. Give students a few minutes to respond to the phrase. Afterward, allow students to share what they wrote about the phrase and lead a class discussion about national responsibility and loyalty. After our discussion, I read Shooting at the Stars by John Hendrix aloud. The story of the WWI Christmas Truce further emphasized the concept that the students had begun to understand and vocalize—that war is made up of individuals who have more similarities than differences with those fighting for the opposing side.
• Vocabulary Art—Learning not just the definition of unfamiliar words but how to apply them in different contexts is an essential skill for all students. With my students, we made a list of “power words” found in Thirty Minutes Over Oregon (examples include catastrophically, pride, veteran, condemning and reconciliation) and then each student selected a word. The assignment was to make an illustrated definition of his/her selected power word. I provided oversized paper, markers, pastels, magazines and other materials to ensure maximum creativity. The only criteria for their illustrated word assignment was that their creation must include a sentence using the selected power word and the artwork must reflect an aspect of their sentence or the word.
Ruby in the Ruins by Shirley Hughes
It’s 1945 in London, and the war has finally come to an end. Young Ruby is thankful her house survived the blitz bombings and is excited for her father’s homecoming. When he finally arrives home from his duty in the war, she is surprised by her feelings of shyness around him. One day Ruby and her friends decide to play on the forbidden piles of rubble that line the London streets. An accident occurs, and Ruby’s dad saves the day. The incident and conversation afterward help ease the emotional distance between the two. Hughes’ straight-forward text and illustrations present the London blitzes and post-war devastation from a child’s point of view, showing how the war affected not just soldiers, but the lives of all English citizens.
• Life in London during WWII—For young Ruby, life during the war meant “nights when the warning sirens wailed and searchlights swept the sky,” terrifying explosions that made her family’s small house shake and trips to the cold and crowded air raid shelter. The BBC People’s War is a collection of several articles (many first-hand accounts) regarding the blitzes and daily life in London during the war. Print various articles and let students read them individually or in pairs. Afterward, write the following words on pieces of chart paper: air-raids, Blitzkrieg, evacuees, siren, rubble, Luftwaffe, Royal Air Force, countryside and air-raid shelter. I wrote two words on each sheet of paper. Let students provide the information they gathered from their articles to flesh out the meanings of the words. My students enjoyed listening to the sound of an actual air-raid siren.
• Nonfiction Text Features—When the students have grasped the concept and big ideas of the London Blitz as well as the mass evacuation, show them these excellent photographs of children evacuees from the Imperial War Museum. Read the captions that accompany the photographs and then discuss the importance of photo captions in nonfiction documents. Teach students that though a caption can be more than one sentence, the first sentence is the most important and must give readers information about the photograph. Give each student a copy of this photograph of young children next to London rubble. Provide the basic details of the photograph and then let them write a caption to accompany the photograph.