This Redmond teenager wants elementary schools to have books about the incarceration of Japanese Americans

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Kai Vanderlip just wanted the kids to remember. And books, he thought, might be the best way.

Now 17 at Tesla STEM High School in Redmond, Vanderlip was in fifth grade when he first learned of the incarceration of Japanese Americans brought about by Executive Order 9066. This order, issued 80 years ago last month by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, ultimately uprooted more than 100,000 Japanese Americans on the west coast of this country. Labeled threats to national security, they were forced from their homes and sent to guarded prison camps for the duration of World War II.

It was a subject with which Vanderlip had a personal connection: family members from long ago—a great-grandfather’s brother and brother-in-law—who were incarcerated. And it surprised him that he hadn’t learned it before. He spent months researching the subject of a special project at school, becoming an expert on the details. In 2017, when he was in sixth grade, he attended a workshop led by then KING 5 reporter Lori Matsukawa, commemorating the 75th anniversary of incarceration, and asked her at what age she thought children should learn about it.

“Even kindergartners can understand that at one point in history it wasn’t cool to have a Japanese name.”

“She said something like, ‘Kids can learn this at any age,'” Vanderlip said, in an interview last month from her Redmond home. “Even kindergartners can understand that at one point in history it wasn’t cool to have a Japanese name.”

It was the seed of Vanderlip’s project, The Day of Remembrance Japanese Incarceration Literature for Libraries, planted years ago and ultimately harvested during the pandemic. Wanting to do something more during those difficult first months of staying home, Vanderlip noticed that the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 was approaching. “One thing led to another, and I thought it would be great to have picture books [about the subject] in elementary school libraries. I thought I didn’t learn much about it in grade school, it was all my own research. Especially in 2020, it seemed super relevant.

Watching the news back then was scary; hate crimes against Asian Americans were increasing. But Vanderlip wondered if children could perhaps learn about civil rights abuses like incarceration early on, “they could speak out and grow into more knowledgeable individuals who can speak out against intolerance in all its forms.” He recalled a quote he once heard: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Vanderlip’s project began in the fall of 2020 with searches of the Library of Congress website, looking for age-appropriate books for elementary schools on the subject of Japanese American incarceration. He read “a bunch” and curated a list, enlisting the help of Leann Clawson, the librarian at his old school, Ben Franklin Elementary.

“He’s done a good job choosing books for elementary students,” Clawson said in a phone interview. She remembered Vanderlip in fifth grade years ago as “a very caring student… full of questions and eager to learn and creative. He always wanted to do his best and think outside the box.

With help from Clawson, other Lake Washington School District librarians, and his school’s Equity Club, Vanderlip finalized a list of six books and began researching and writing grants; buying six books each for 33 elementary schools was no small feat. Eventually, funding was secured from the Lake Washington Schools Foundation and the City of Kirkland (through the Kirkland Youth Council), and Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond offered a discount on the purchase of the book.

It wasn’t all easy: one of the chosen books, “The Cat Who Chose to Dream” by Loriene Honda, was out of print. Unfazed, Vanderlip contacted the publisher, Martin Pearl Publishing, who agreed to do a special discounted print signed by the author. “He had to take extra steps and jump through hoops to get this printed,” Clawson said. “It was really impressive to me.”

In December 2021, the Vanderlip High School Equity Club participated in a book bagging night, to sort and bag books for schools – 198 copies in total. Vanderlip began distributing them in January, and all were received in time for the Remembrance Day last month, February 19. It also created video lesson plans, with the help of librarians, and distributed them. It would have been nice, he thought, to visit the schools himself and read to the students, but the pandemic made that impractical.

“The amount of work he’s done…he’s a very unusual high schooler who would be willing and able to succeed,” Clawson said.

It’s a project that ultimately took him about a year and a half and demonstrated remarkable commitment. “The amount of work he’s done…he’s a very unusual high schooler who would be willing and able to succeed,” Clawson said.

Cynthia Burt, associate principal of Tesla STEM High School (and advisor for the school’s Equity Club) said Vanderlip struck her as an exceptionally caring young person early on. “Kai has been proactive over her past three years to create a welcoming environment at school,” she wrote in an email, noting that she first met Vanderlip as a new freshman who approached her “to let me know that he was worried about the other 9th graders who looked lonely. He and his friends had taken it upon themselves to include them, and he also wanted me to know.

“I am grateful to Kai for taking steps to educate others, from preschoolers to adults, about Remembrance Day,” she wrote. “I am grateful to him for his example of treating everyone with dignity and respect.”

These days, Vanderlip thinks about the typical concerns of a high school student. He is working on a roster of students (he would like to stay on the west coast and not stray too far from home) and is interested in studying English, psychology and law.

But he’s still thinking about the library literature program and how it might continue. “I would love to branch out to elementary schools in other districts,” he said. “Maybe more adult books, more schools in my district. I have many different ideas. I really hope some of them come to fruition. It would be very exciting to be able to broadcast this project.

See Vanderlip’s list of books here.

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