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The Research Behind THE WAR OUTSIDE by Monica Hesse

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By Monica Hesse, author of The War Outside and Girl in the Blue Coat

While working on The War Outside, a story of friendship and secrets in a World War II internment camp, I kept a photo bookmarked on my laptop and I’d look at it almost every day before I started writing. It’s a picture of a teenage girl—curled hair, high heels—wearing a corsage and a tiara and sitting in front of a heart-shaped backdrop, with the caption, “Campus Queen.” Her name is Ayako, and at the time the photo was taken, she was a prisoner. Her parents had been accused of being enemies of the United States, so they were sent to live behind barbed wire in Crystal City, Texas, along with thousands of other Japanese-American and German-American families.

 Source: University of Texas library system

Source: University of Texas library system


That photo, and dozens of others I came across, is evidence of one of the most heartbreaking themes I kept encountering during my research: the teenagers who were sent to this camp were American. And even when their country had turned against them, stolen their homes and sent them to a desert, they still wanted to have an American life. They still elected a prom queen.

The students of Federal High, the American high school inside the camp, also put on plays and published a student newspaper. The young men fielded football and baseball teams. They even had cheerleaders: girls and boys in sweaters emblazoned with “F” for Federal High.

 Source: Jan Jarboe Russell’s “The Train to Crystal City” Originally from the Federal High School yearbook, 1945.

Source: Jan Jarboe Russell’s “The Train to Crystal City”
Originally from the Federal High School yearbook, 1945.

 Source: UTSA Institute of Texan Culture

Source: UTSA Institute of Texan Culture


These photos made me think about what it means to be a prisoner. The United States government was proud of Crystal City: they made a documentary about quality of life in the camp. But how big of a life can you live behind a barbed wire fence?

These photos also made me think about what it means to be an American. What it means to belong. What it means to be loyal.

I tried to track down Ayako, but I couldn’t find her. There wasn’t any more information about her in any of my research books, and none of the people who shared her last name were related to her. But I still think about her all the time. How confusing her life must have been: A prom queen in an internment camp. An American punished for her parents’ birthplace. In 1944, the entire world was at war. But how do you know who the enemy is, when your country keeps saying it’s you?

It’s 1944, and World War II is raging across Europe and the Pacific. The war seemed far away from Margot in Iowa and Haruko in Colorado—until they were uprooted to dusty Texas, all because of the places their parents once called home: Germany and Japan.

Haruko and Margot meet at the high school in Crystal City, a “family internment camp” for those accused of colluding with the enemy. The teens discover that they are polar opposites in so many ways, except for one that seems to override all the others: the camp is changing them, day by day and piece by piece. Haruko finds herself consumed by fear for her soldier brother and distrust of her father, who she knows is keeping something from her. And Margot is doing everything she can to keep her family whole as her mother’s health deteriorates and her rational, patriotic father becomes a man who distrusts America and fraternizes with Nazis.

With everything around them falling apart, Margot and Haruko find solace in their growing, secret friendship. But in a prison the government has deemed full of spies, can they trust anyone—even each other?

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Why I Wrote The Summer of Us

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In The Summer of Us, best friends Aubrey and Rae spend ten days traveling around Europe by train before moving away to start college. The trip is nerve-wracking, exhilarating, and none of it goes according to plan, which, to be honest, is how I often felt while writing this book. Partially because The Summer of Us is my second novel, and second novels are notoriously difficult to write. (See: Second Novel Syndrome. Believe me, it’s A Thing.) But mostly, I struggled because this story ended up being so much more personal than my first.

I wrote the trip from both Aubrey and Rae’s perspectives, and while they spend a lot of it navigating their friendship with each other, they both also have their own love stories to tell. Rae’s is about her long-term (and secret) crush on her seemingly straight friend, Clara. Rae and Clara’s relationship was one of my favorite parts of The Summer of Us to write, but it also felt intensely private, like I was cutting and pasting pages from the stack of notebooks I used to scribble in as a teen and holding them up for the world to see.  

Not because I’d ever had a summer romance quite that swoony, but because I kept remembering the first time I had a crush on a girl and how…confused I felt. Up until then, I would have described myself, without hesitation, as boy-crazy. I was obsessed with rom-coms where boy meets girl and they both end up happily ever after. I didn’t understand how that side of me could sync up with this other side falling head over heels for a girl. Looking back, I know I felt so bewildered because I’d never read or seen any girl-meets-girl love stories before. I couldn’t hold them up like a mirror, trying to catch a sliver of a reflection of my own future. So, as I was writing Rae and Clara—the two of them sharing glances across crowded trains, nearly touching hands, exploring the sun-soaked streets of European cities—I finally realized why their story felt so intensely personal: it was because I was writing the book I’d been searching for back then. I was filling in the blanks for my teenage self, giving her something that was bright and romantic and—yup—unquestionably queer. Something she could use as a hopeful landmark while charting her own life.

Things have changed a lot in the past ten years. F/f love stories are constantly becoming more and more visible, and I feel grateful that Rae and Clara can now sit on shelves next to so many other LGBTQ+ romances that I have fallen in love with since then. I’m excited for readers to meet them, but I know part of me will always see their story as something I wrote for my past self. For the girl who felt so afraid that being who she was meant giving up the breathless, daydreamy romances she used to cling to like promises. It’s my way of telling that girl that, even though the map of her life doesn’t look quite the way she’d always planned, it’s still the best adventure she could ever hope for—and it still leads to her happily-ever-after.