About the Book

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka book cover paperback versionA day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Julie Otsuka’s grandfather was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on suspicion of being a Japanese spy. Her mother, grandmother, and uncle were subsequently interned at a camp in Topaz, Utah. Otsuka draws on both research and personal experience, as well as her background as a visual artist, to craft this crystalline, semi-autobiographical debut novel, winner of the American Library Association’s Alex Award and the Asian American Literary Award. The internment experience in the novel is recounted through the varying perspectives of a mother, father, daughter, and son as they survive in the camp and then return home after two years to their old neighborhood that is neither familiar nor hospitable. This is “a gem of a book and one of the most vivid history lessons you’ll ever learn” (USA Today).

(Description from NEA Big Read website.)

About the Author

Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka was born in Palo Alto, California, in 1962 to parents of Japanese descent. Her father, an Issei or Japanese immigrant, was an aerospace engineer. Her mother, a Nisei or second-generation Japanese American, was a laboratory technician before Julie’s birth.

Otsuka’s family history figures prominently in the novel. A day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, her grandfather was arrested by the FBI on suspicion of being a Japanese spy. Her mother, grandmother, and uncle were subsequently interned at a camp in Topaz, Utah. Otsuka drew on both research and personal experience to craft this debut novel, which won the American Library Association’s Alex Award and the Asian American Literary Award in 2003. Emperor has been assigned to first-year students at more than 45 colleges and universities.

Otsuka says she writes every day at her local café.

(Description from NEA Big Read website.)

Readers' Resources

Check out the NEA Big Read website for a variety of Readers' Resources such as discussion questions, information about the book, interviews, and more. We've also put together a Read-Alike Guide with fiction and non-fiction recommendations similar to the book!