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  • Writer's pictureBrandi Prater

Here's Why Things Are Different After Dark



Chee, T. (2022). We Are Not Free (Reprint ed.). Clarion Books. ASIN B08YMZRQJ7


Three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, Minnow does not understand why his older brother always tells him to come straight home. One day after school, Minnow stays after school late to draw the football team in sketchbook. Minnow is always drawing things happening in his city, San Francisco. But that day, Minnow realizes that things ARE different and that he shouldn’t be out after dark. Because of the bombing, people in the US shift from viewing Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens with suspicion and Minnow is attacked. As the story unfolds, it chronicles the lives of fourteen teens and their interconnected stories over the next three years. Their lives are turned upside down as they and their families are escorted to the incarceration campus across the West. This near-inseparable group of teenagers from San Francisco’s Japantown must fight every day to stick together and keep hope alive. In a world that seems determined to hate them, these young Nisei must rally together inf the face of racism and injustices that threatens to pull them apart. The losses they endure will change their lives forever.


American-born teens, who are of Japanese descent, are getting ready to be forced into incarceration camps during World War II. Before their removal, in their neighborhood called Japantown, they are surrounded by people who do not trust their right to be in the US. Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective, beginning with their initial deportation to a nearby incarceration camp, then a second move to a more developed compound in Utah. In a culture where three-generation households are the norm and the influence of family is a staple, isolated “camp” life is destructive to that dynamic. Peer influence and friendships become the life preservers that keep them afloat as they rally together against the racism that threatens to tear them apart.

Written exclusively through the eyes of 14 teenagers, the stories describe their intertwining points of view through the period between 1942 and 1945. Although told through varying points of view, each story has a distinct voice that works well as a collaborative story while simultaneously allowing each character to stand on their own. Chee also incorporates various graphic elements that connect the story to its historical period (drawings, photographs, maps, postcards, telegrams, and newspaper articles), which makes it necessary to pick up a copy of the book if you opt to listen to the audio version.

The audio version of this book is available on Audible, but I was able to get a free copy through the school library on Sora. It’s likely that OverDrive, the parent company to Sora and Libby, should have it available at your local library as well. The first-person, present-tense narratives did make it harder to follow the character development, but chapter headings can help you get your bearings if you are willing to interrupt the listening experience. Even though having the characters come and go resulted in a slightly disorienting experience, the collective experiences provided vivid characterizations that help the story remain intact. “While the characters grapple with the injustice and prejudice they face, readers are also forced to grapple with understanding” (Lit Lessons, 2020) this painful history and what it reveals about our country. The narrators were cast perfectly. Their voices were very fitting for the main characters and really helped connect you to the different narratives.


Young Japanese Americans tell of life during World War II. In San Francisco’s Japantown, a group of teens has grown up together and become like family. But life in America after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor is dangerous for them. They and their families are taken to the Topaz incarceration camp in Utah, where the harsh conditions and injustices they experience turn their worlds upside down. They draw some comfort in being together—however, a government questionnaire causes rifts: Loyalties are questioned, lines are drawn, and anger spills over, threatening to destroy the bonds that once held them together.

· Kirkus Reviews starred (July 15, 2020)


· Michael L. Printz Honor, 2020

· National Book Award Finalist, 2020

· Walter Honor Book, 2020

· Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature Honor Book, 2020


Major Themes

Identity — This story is about the forced removal, or the temporary detention centers that Japanese Americans were forced to live in during WWII, which results in the teen’s identity become split between being Japanese or American or both.

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Racism — Three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, these characters, and people were turned into ‘enemy aliens. During WWII they experienced harsh conditions and injustices.

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War — Spanning three years, from March 1942 to March 1945, the book describes the interconnected stories of 14 quite different teens to illustrate the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWI.

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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.

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