Seen and Unseen by Elizabeth Partridge and Lauren Tamaki

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I have read many books and novels about the Japanese-American Internment program during World War II, but nothing quite as unique as Seen and Unseen by Elizabeth Partridge and Lauren Tamaki (Chronicle Books, 2022). This nonfiction middle-grade Siebert Award winner is subtitled “What Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, and Ansel Adam’s Photographs Reveal about the Japanese American Incarceration.”

As the subtitle suggests, not only is this a book about this awful situation in American history, but it highlights the work of three photographers who captured the situations through photography. Including one of the prisoners himself, who secretly photographed the underbelly of the camps.

When I first picked up this book, I expected to see various chapters of text, occasionally illustrated with the photographer’s work. But Seen and Unseen is not just the photographs and story. The illustrations by Lauren Tamaki contribute to the story as well.

Using lots of blank space, the photographers themselves are illustrated, the situations and settings that were not photographed are illustrated according to the first-hand accounts, and some of the photographs have the setting extended into the illustrator’s own sketch of the rest of the scene.

Some illustrations are black-and-white sketches, while others add a touch of color. The illustrations, the empty space, and the photographs provide such an emotional punch to the words Partridge has written.

The story of the incarceration of thousands of Japanese-Americans is heartbreaking. Partridge’s text gives context to each photographer’s intentions. Their intentions provided three unique perspectives: one of propaganda for the U.S. government (Ansel Adams), one as a sympathetic observer (Dorothea Lange) longing for change, and the last as an incarcerated photographer hiding his homemade camera in his lunch box (Toyo Miyatake). Their personal stories and the effect of their photographs add so much to the wide range of history regarding this time in American history, as do the first-hand accounts of impacted families.

It is certainly time that these photographs, as well as the truth of this horrific time in U.S. history, came to life. The hidden history of the past, which I personally had never heard of in my youth, was a family tragedy for thousands. Seen and Unseen is a fantastic first book on this subject not just for middle-grade readers but for young adults and adults as well. It packs a punch and provides a browseable and readable book essential to American history and education.

Reviewed on March 22, 2023

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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