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We Are Not Free (book)

Creators: Traci Chee

Young adult novel by Traci Chee that tells the wartime incarceration story through the eyes of a group of teenage friends from San Francisco.

Each of the sixteen chapters—which begin just prior to the forced removal and end with the return to San Francisco in 1945—is written in the first-person voice of one of fourteen teens, with each getting at least one chapter. The range of voices allows the story to cover the core events of the experience, from leaving home, incarceration at Tanforan and Topaz , the "[[Loyalty questionnaire|loyalty questionnaire]," military service, segregation and Tule Lake , and the return home . The group experiences love and loss, sees friendships deepen and dissolve, and grapples with the question of what it means to be American and "Japanese" while coming of age in uniquely difficult circumstances. An author's note details the book's origin in the author's family history, historical liberties taken, and its contemporary relevance.

Known for her best-selling The Reader fantasy trilogy, Chee turned to her family's wartime incarceration for We Are Not Free . Her grandparents were incarcerated at Topaz as teenagers, and though they had both passed away by the time she began work on the book, she was able to interview surviving relatives starting in 2016. She was also able to read letters her grandfather wrote to her grandmother while he was in the army in 1945. Struck by how different their various experiences had been, she turned to the multi-character format to reflect that diversity. [1]

The book is historically accurate for the most part, though it embellishes the travails faced by the incarcerated Japanese Americans in a number of places: inmates are made to disrobe for medical inspections upon entering Tanforan, they note the barbed-wire fence around Topaz as they enter (construction of the fence was just starting as inmates arrived), and a riot/martial law situation is invented at Topaz after the shooting of an Issei man during the registration period. (The author acknowledges basing this shooting on the shooting of James Hatsuaki Wakasa and moving it forward two months.) The final chapter that takes place in San Francisco in February and March of 1945 describes events—staying in a Buddhist church hostel, fruitless searches for housing, the closing down of Topaz—that actually took place six or more months later.

We Are Not Free was honored with several major awards, including being named a 2020 National Book Awards Finalist in the Young People's Literature category, a 2021 Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children's Literature Honor Book, and a 2021 Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book. [2]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

Might also like The War Outside by Monica Hesse; Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata; A Fence Away From Freedom: Japanese-Americans and World War II by Ellen Levine


  1. Traci Chee, "To Ask for a Story," Booklist , Aug. 2020, 59; Roger Sutton, "Traci Chee Talks with Roger," The Horn Book, Inc. website, Sept. 9, 2020, ; and Traci Chee interview by Alice Cary, BookPage, Sept. 1, 2020, , both accessed on Mar. 5, 2021.
  2. 2020 Winners, National Book Foundation, ; The Walter Awards, ; Printz Award, Young Adult Library Services Association, , all accessed on Mar. 5, 2021.
Media Details
Author Traci Chee
Pages 400
Publication Date 2020
ISBN Finalist, National Book Awards 2020


Carton, Debbie. Booklist , Apr. 1, 2020, 76. ["Her passion and personal involvement combine with her storytelling talents to create a remarkable and deeply moving account of the incarceration."]

Hunt, Jonathan. The Horn Book Magazine , Sept./Oct. 2020, 85. ["The result is slightly disorienting as characters come and go, but the overall effect is nuanced and kaleidoscopic."]

Kirkus Reviews , Apr. 5, 2020 . ["This is a compelling and transformative story of a tragic period in American history…. Each voice is powerful, evoking raw emotions of fear, anger, resentment, uncertainty, grief, pride, and love."]

Kwong, DeHanza. School Library Journal , Apr. 2020, 138–39. ["Chee's words are a lot to take in, but necessary and beautiful all the same. This remarkable book deserves to be in any library collection."]

Publishers Weekly , July 6, 2020, 78 . ["Ambitious in scope and complexity, this is an essential contribution to the understanding of the wide-ranging experiences impacting people of Japanese ancestry in the U.S. during WWII."]