Expressing Love in Extraordinary Times

February 18, 2022 § 2 Comments

This past Monday was Valentine’s Day, and when my daughter got home from school, I read a picture book to her while she had her snack, as we do most afternoons. (One more time for the back row: older kids continue to enjoy a litany of benefits from picture books!) For the simple reason that “love” was in the title, I grabbed Love in the Library (Ages 6-10) off a pile of book mail I’d just received. I had done such a cursory scan of the cover that I assumed it would be a sweet story about two people falling in love in a library. Or falling in love with books. In any case, a story that had been told before, in one way or another.

Had I looked more closely at the cover, I would have noticed that the view through the window behind the central figures—an armed guard in a tower above a barbed wire fence—starkly juxtaposes the smiles, expressive body language, and colorful book covers of the interior setting.

By the time I finished reading the book, I had tears in my eyes. By the time I finished the Author’s Note, I had chills across my entire body. My daughter echoed aloud what I was feeling: “WOW.” This may be a story of love in a library, but it is not one that has been told before. This is an incredible, largely true story of how the author’s maternal grandparents fell in love, against all odds, during their time at the Minidoka incarceration camp, where they were unjustly imprisoned during World War Two for being Japanese American. It’s a story told with tremendous power and tenderness, both in Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s words and in Yas Imamura’s gouache and watercolor art. And it’s a story that underscores the humanity we all share.

As I was getting ready for bed Monday night, I reflected on the casual Valentine’s celebration we’d had over dinner. I thought about how each of us has our own love language. For my son, it was the ginger cookies he’d baked. For my husband, it was the heart-shaped pizzas he hurried home from the dentist to make. For my daughter, it was craft-paper hearts, decorated with personal messages of love and gratitude for each of us. For me, it was the books I wrapped and placed at my kids’ spots on the dinner table, new titles in beloved graphic novel series that I knew they weren’t expecting. (The second book in the Katie the Catsitter series for my daughter; the fourth book in the Heartstopper series for my son.) Baking. Cooking. Crafting. Reading. Each of us expressing love in our own way.

In as much as the language of love is influenced by our own personalities, it’s also influenced by our surroundings. In Love in the Library, the protagonists’ love language is actually crafted in defiance of those surroundings. Loving each other becomes a way of setting their hearts free, of holding onto hope amidst the literal imprisonment of the camp and the figurative imprisonment of injustice.

“Tama did not like the desert.” We are introduced to Tama on page one, as she brushes dust from her eyes and avoids eye contact with the armed guard towering above her. She clutches a book to her chest as she makes her way to the library. Young readers will not immediately grasp the whys behind this disturbing setting. Author Maggie Tokuda-Hall is intentional about when she provides historical context for the internment camp to the young reader, doing so only after she has introduced her heroine and drawn us into her story. This decision feels like a small act of resistance, a way to center the characters over their circumstances.

Tama knew nothing about how to be a librarian before coming to the camp, but “people did the jobs that needed doing and that was that.” She likes books, so she volunteered for the job. And every morning, standing at the entrance of the one-room shack that serves as the library, is George. George with his booming voice and the armful of books he checked out the day before.

We learn Tama and George have already been in Minidoka for a year, and here we begin to get some contextual information. Instead of being allowed to graduate college, Tama was sent, alongside “elderly people, children, babies,” to one of many “uncomfortable and unjust” prison camps. “It didn’t matter who you were, just what you were—and being Japanese American then was treated like a crime.” I love the way Yas Imamura infuses dignity into his illustrations of the people lined up for transport, each with identification labels—the kind you might pin to a suitcase—hanging around their necks. The tilts of chins upward, the neatly pressed clothing, the hands on shoulders of loved ones: these all feel like artistic acts of resistance.

“How magical that—even in Minidoka—such a small little library could fit so much inside of its four walls!” Everything we discover about the Minidoka library—green and red book covers, moments of delight and discovery, imaginative transports of the stories themselves, and George’s big smile—contrasts everyday life at the camp, an existence characterized by extremes of temperature, barren expanses of grey and brown, and no privacy. And this:

Constant Questions. Constant worries. Constant fear.

Though we suspect, from the book’s title, where the story is going, Tama herself is initially oblivious to George’s affection. It’s not until she asks him how he could possibly read so many books in a single night that he admits he doesn’t come for the books. What he wishes for is to get to know Tama.

What Tama wishes for is a word to express the combination of “scared and sad and confused and frustrated and lonely and hopeful” she feels, all day, every day. She has read more books than she can count, but none of them pinpoint the turmoil of emotions she is experiencing. George, however, knows just the right word.

“Human,” George said. He smiled his big smile, and Tama smiled back. She wiped her eyes. She held the word close to her heart and felt less alone than she had only a moment before.

George’s love language is his smile. His touch. His ability to see into Tama’s soul and recall her to her own humanity—something sacred, lasting, essential. The camps were “built to make people feel like they weren’t human,” but inside their minds and their hearts, the “miraculous” endured.

Tama and George go on to be married in Minidoka, even bringing their first child into the world while still at the camp. The injustice in which they live is constant, but so, too, is their love. The book concludes with a sentiment pulled directly from a journal kept by Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s maternal grandmother, on whom the story is based.

The miracle is in us. […] As long as we believe in change, in beauty, in hope.

The powerful Author’s Note sheds further light on the real lives of Tama and George, while also connecting the racism behind the Japanese internment camps to the “myth of white supremacy” that endures today, with children in cages on borders, travel bans on Muslims, murdering of Black people by police, voter suppression; and much more. That Tama and George are able to kindle their love in such bleak circumstances is not, Maggie Tokuda-Hall explains, to diminish the injustice they and so many others experienced. But it does remind us that the language of love is itself indicative of the humanity that connects us—and that’s something we must continue to fight for.

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Book gifted by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. If you’re in the Alexandria area, please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I assist with the kids’ buying!

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