Dear Miss Breed
The kindness and courage of Clara Breed '27 are recognized in a book and
a play long after the San Diego librarian spoke out against the
internment of Japanese Americans during the second world war.
By Valerie Takahama
Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and
A Librarian Who Made a Difference
By Joanne Oppenheim
Scholastic Nonfiction, 2006 / 288 pages / $22.99
Elizabeth Yamada was surprised to hear from Clara Breed '27 after so many years. Miss Breed--nearly everyone called her that--had saved letters written to her by Japanese American children incarcerated during World War II. But no one seemed interested in keeping them. Would she take them?
Yamada was one of Miss Breed’s “children.” When she was an 11-year-old at an internment camp in Poston., Ariz., she received a special book from Miss Breed, the children’s librarian back home in San Diego, called A House for Elizabeth. To young Elizabeth, the daughter of a minister who had lived all her life in church properties and now in the dusty, tar-papered barracks at Poston, the book held a promise: Some day she would have a real house like the one in the storybook.
So as soon as she could, Yamada visited Miss Breed at her retirement home in Spring Valley, near San Diego, and picked up the cache of postcards and letters—more than 250 in all, along with notebooks, newspaper
clippings, magazine articles and other records tucked away for more than 40 years. She read them eagerly, curious for glimpses of her younger self, and she shared them with friends who had also been at Poston. In 1991, she and other former Poston internees honored Miss Breed at a reunion in San Diego that brought together many of the letter writers. Eventually, Yamada donated them to the Japanese American National
Museum in Los Angeles.
The story of the letters might have ended there, with old memories kindled, a little laughter and a few tears, and a standing
ovation at the reunion. But the letters took on a second life, one that has brought recognition to Miss Breed, long after she
fought against prejudice and injustice with acts of kindness and courage.
JOANNE OPPENHEIM discovered the letters by accident.
The New York City-based author of dozens of books for and about children was planning her high school reunion in spring
2001 and searching for a Japanese American classmate on the Internet when she clicked on the Web site for the Japanese American National Museum. There, she happened upon letters
and the story of Miss Breed.
Clara Breed, a pastor’s daughter and Pomona College English major, was the first professionally trained children’s librarian at the San Diego Public Library, and had gotten to know many of the Japanese American children and teenagers who used the library. When they were being shipped off to “relocation centers” in April 1942, she went to the train station, gave them stamped postcards and urged them to write and let her know how they were doing.
About a dozen of them kept up a stream of correspondence over the next two-and-a-half years, writing first from an assembly center at the Santa Anita racetrack and then from the camp in the Arizona desert, where temperatures rose above 120 degrees and scorpions and crickets crawled in through the floorboards.
Miss Breed wrote back. She sent them Christmas presents, care packages with sewing supplies, shoe polish, hair curlers and other useful items, and, of course, books. The letters were a lifeline to the world outside the camps, and a reminder that they had friends who cared about them.
But Miss Breed didn’t stop there. She also wrote letters and magazine articles speaking out against the incarceration, and she lobbied for the release of college-age internees so they could continue their educations. Her eloquence and compassion inspired other librarians to send books to the camps.
After the war, she welcomed back many of “her children” to San Diego, and remained friends with some of them for years. She became head City Librarian, a position she held for more than 25 years. When she died in 1994 at age 88, a former inmate at Poston delivered a eulogy at the funeral.
Oppenheim was so stunned by the story that she immediately checked to see if any books had been written about the librarian. To her surprise, she found there were none and set out to write one.
“I’ve never, never come across a story like this that just grabbed me,” she recalls.
Oppenheim, president of a well-known toy review guide, considers herself lucky that it did. Shortly after she began
research, she was diagnosed with cancer and began treatment. She says reading the kids’ letters kept her going.
“It helped me understand that people get through all kinds
of things, and that I had had a really easy life compared to
what I was reading about,” she says.
“That was the greatest gift for my health, my mental health
and everything else.”
She was equally inspired by Miss Breed.
“She was bucking the tide, and she risked maybe losing her
job, and certainly being criticized,” Oppenheim says. “Yet she
believed enough in what she was doing to speak out professionally.”
ANNA TARTAR, the city’s library director, had heard that a
writer was researching a book on Miss Breed.
Tartar first met Miss Breed in the late 1970s when the city
was debating budget cuts under California’s tax-revolt
Proposition 13. Even though she had been retired for several
years, Miss Breed showed up at the library one day to ask about
the cutbacks, and then turned up at Balboa Park where librarians
protested with picket signs with slogans like “Shelve Books,
“Right away, I sensed what a caring individual she was even
after she had moved on into retirement,” Tartar said. “The concern
for the library and what it meant in terms of service to the
community, the passion was still there.”
That passion made sense to her later when she learned about
Miss Breed’s activism during World War II.
“There is probably no organization that values democratic
principles more than the public library,” she said. “One of the
values in a democracy is that you do question, you do analyze,
you look at the other side.
“Here was somebody who embodies the values of the profession.
I think that that is what’s so wonderful, and it makes you
proud to be a librarian.”
Oppenheim’s book, Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the
Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and
A Librarian Who Made a Difference (Scholastic 2006) brought
200 people to its launch at the main library in San Diego, an
event co-sponsored by the Japanese American Historical Society
of San Diego. (The tome will be published in Japan this year
The book made such an impression on the library staff
that it was picked as the One Book, One San Diego selection
last September. In November, it won the National Council for
Social Studies’ Carter G. Woodson 2007 Award for distinguished
books about ethnicity, and is being used by social studies
teachers in schools all across the country.
NOW, THE BOOK is also a play. Oppenheim wrote a stage
adaptation that was performed by the Asian Story Theater in
San Diego last year in a production co-sponsored by the library
and made possible by a $60,000 grant from the California Civil
Liberties Education Fund. She hopes it will be performed elsewhere.
It’s introducing a new generation of students to Miss
Breed and “her children.”
“She didn’t care what anyone said about her; she stood up for
her true feelings. If she were still alive, I would thank her for
everything she did to help others,” wrote Karla Armenta, a
ninth-grade student at San Diego High School of International
Studies and one of the 1,500 people who saw the play.
Her classmate Allison Cardwell found it hard to believe that
the events in the play actually took place in America.
“Although this injustice should have never happened, it is
crucial that we are aware it did,” Cardwell wrote. “We must
know that our country is not always perfect, and try our hardest
to make sure our rights are not taken away.
“As many people have said before, ‘the only way to change
the future is to know the past.’”