Blog Tour + Thoughts: We Are Not Free by Traci Chee


Thank you to Colored Pages Bookish Tours and HMH Teen for providing me with an advanced reader copy for this book tour.

  "You move, or you do not move; you freeze, or you act; it doesn't matter. You are too dangerous anyway, too yellow, too slow, too stupid, too weak anyway. You are arrested anyway. You are beaten anyway."

During World War II, the United States government held thousands of Japanese-Americans in internment camps. Driven by xenophobia and racism, America justified the forced removal of families from their neighborhoods under the guise of identifying Japanese spies. Despite the fact that these individuals were citizens and some even fought in the American military, over 120,000 Japanese-Americans were uprooted from their lives and relocated to ten camps. They were forced to carry registration papers and abandon their belongings and businesses. In camps and in their own communities, Japanese-Americans were subject to discrimination, maltreatment, and even violence at the hands of government officials and other Americans. In We Are Not Free, author Traci Chee details the experiences of fourteen second-generation Japanese-American teenagers who must endure hatred and hardship.

We Are Not Free is a heartbreaking reminder that history is comprised of individual stories. Sometimes, statistics make it easy to forgo empathy: to forget that behind the number 120,000 lies people, each with their own dreams and desires, whose lives were ruptured by internment. Chee's fourteen characters deliver these individual stories. They range from dedicated academics to students that would prefer brawling in the street to finishing a homework assignment. They are musicians, artists, and soldiers. They are best friends, siblings, and maybe even lovers. All are young. Internment strips all of their belongings, their education, their families, and their childhoods. Chee weaves these different perspectives, even changing narrative voice and writing style between chapters, with incredible ease.

But We Are Not Free is also a love letter and a battle cry. Despite being forced into maturity and defiance by a discriminatory society, the teens remain a community for each other.

"All around me, my friends are talking, joking, laughing. Outside is the camp, the barbed wire, the guard towers, the city, the country that hates us. We are not free. But we are not alone."

One of my favorite chapters was the only section written in verse. In poems that alternate under the titles of "Japanese" and "American", 19-year-old Tommy, wrestles with his identity. Like too many Nisei, or Japanese children born to immigrants, he is must make an impossible choice between liberation and family: American or Japanese. His appearance makes him unable to separate his background from who he is; whether he considers himself Japanese or not does not matter, because Americans will view him as Japanese regardless. As a second-generation Asian-American, Tommy grew up knowing America and does not speak Japanese. In internment, renouncing his Japanese identity might allow him to leave the camp, but he would not be truly free. Tommy would still be separated from his family and vulnerable to prejudice and violence outside of the gates. Renouncing his American identity would mean keeping his family united but remaining "disloyal" in the eyes of camp officials. 

"Stan Katsumoto said no at first. / But under enough pressure, everything splits-- / If you're not in Hokuku, / you're not true Japanese, / and if you're not true Japanese, / you and your family could be inu. / You know, dogs. / Spies. / American."

Japanese-American boys serving in the American military face a similar crisis of identity. Some of Chee's most poignant lines emerge in the chapters describing Twitchy, another 19-year-old drafted in 1944 to serve in the 442nd Infantry Regiment. The unit was comprised primarily of Japanese-American soldiers. On the front lines, Twitchy fights for America while his friends and family are imprisoned at home. Other American soldiers and a German prisoner still treat him as inferior because he is not white.

In agonizing letters to his father, another soldier, 22-year-old Mas, wonders whether he is compromising a part of himself and his community by serving.

"I want to believe in right and wrong...Here is the question: If I go to war for America, if I kill for America, if I support an America that doesn't support me, am I supporting my oppressors? Am I killing their enemies so they can later kill me? I volunteered. I wanted to serve. But who am I serving Dad? What am I doing here?"

We Are Not Free is one of the most impactful young adult novels that I have read this year. It subverts the status quo of the YA historical fiction genre in its subject matter (which I want to see more of), its seamless melding of multiple stories, and its powerful message: this must not be allowed to happen again. I hope that readers of this book consider the experiences of these characters but also use this story as a foundation to learn more about the legacy of American xenophobia and racism and advocate for change. 

About the Author

Traci Chee is the New York Times best-selling author of The Reader trilogy. She studied literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and earned a master of arts degree from San Francisco State University. She is Japanese American and was inspired to write We Are Not Free by her family’s experience during World War II. Some of the events she includes in the book are loosely inspired by their stories. She loves books, poetry and paper crafts, as well as bonsai gardening and games. She lives in California.



  1. I have never read a book about the experiences of Japanese Americans during WWII, but I think I really need to! I loved this review. A lot of the experiences of Japanese Americans was the same for Japanese Canadians. I think it’s important that we know their stories.

  2. I'm constantly struck every time one of these books pop up that explore the untold stories of victims to the more powerful nations of the world. It's unfortunate that after so many years, there are still countless stories that haven't been told yet or have fallen to deaf years. I am so excited to pick this one up - it honestly sounds incredibly powerful.

    riv @ small stained pages

  3. This sounds so powerful (though it's a pity that the cover sells it more as a comic book than a novel), and your review was professional and passionate at the same time - awesome!

  4. I think this novel is a great reminder of how history is written by the leaders and winners, even if they are wrong. When I learned about Japanese-Americans internment camps in high school, I was shocked and disturbed. How could a country professing freedom for all commit such a heinous act? Of course, I soon came to realize all sorts of dark secrets or events in America's history that schools and the media likes to skim over because they paint our country in a bad light or because they are "distasteful." But these stories NEED to be told because they are distasteful. If we erase every negative event in our past, how can we learn from it and make amends? Fantastic review, Claire!

  5. This sounds absolutely incredible Claire. This is how history is remembered, through education and stories passed along generations, rather than through white historians and schools using a white lens. Being Australian, I had no idea of the atrocities inflicted upon Japanese Americans, it's absolutely deplorable. When countries speak of freedom for all, what they really mean is the white population. Even those born in western countries and the children of migrants and asylum seekers still experience generational trauma, I read quite a bit of Australian First Nations authors (Aboriginal) and their trauma is felt for generations, also enduring bigotry and racism. These stories are so incredibly important, it sounds incredibly moving and looking forward to grabbing a copy as well. Beautiful review Claire, really enjoyed hearing your thoughts.

  6. I have been hearing good things about this one. And honestly your review has convinced me to hunt down a copy. Great job!