Child Culture: Debbi Michiko Florence on Jasmine Toguchi (Q&A w/ event details)

Local author Debbi Michiko Florence will celebrate the release of her new Jasmine Toguchi children’s books with a launch party at Mystic’s Bank Square Books on Saturday, July 15, at 1:00 p.m. There will be crafts, mocha and cookies, and a reading. This event is free and open to the public; books will be available for purchase/signing. More information can be found here. Location: 53 W. Main St.

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Today, please join me in extending virtual greetings to Debbi Michiko Florence.

Debbi is the author of a new chapter series featuring a Japanese-American heroine. The first two books—Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen and Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth—are both out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux tomorrow (July 11, 2017). Debbi has also written two non-fiction books for children in the Kaleidoscope Kids Series, China and Japan. Her prior works of fiction include the early reader chapter book series Dorothy and Toto. Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked at a pet store, volunteered as a raptor rehabilitator, interned as a zookeeper’s aide, taught fifth grade, and was the Associate Curator of Education for a zoo. Debbi is a wife and mother, and currently makes her home in Connecticut, where she writes from The Word Nest.

Debbi Michiko Florence
Debbi Michiko Florence (Photo Credit: Roy Thomas)

Praise for Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen:

“Florence paints a lovely picture of a warm, extended family whose members truly care about one another and take each other seriously…New readers thirsty for series fiction will look forward to more stories about Jasmine and her family.”―Kirkus

“This first entry nicely balances humor with the challenges of growing up; readers will devour it.” ―School Library Journal

“…an adorable and heartwarming story about a kid who wants to feel special and do something first for once, along with a nice overview of a Japanese New Year celebration.”―Booklist

“Florence warmly traces Jasmine’s efforts to get strong (and fast), her clashes and tender moments with her family, and the ins and outs of making mochi (a recipe is included). Vukovic’s b&w spot illustrations evoke Japanese Sumi-e painting while playfully capturing Jasmine’s willfulness and her family’s closeness.” ―Publishers Weekly

From the publisher:

The first book in a new chapter book series featuring a spunky Japanese-American heroine!

Eight-year-old Jasmine Toguchi is a flamingo fan, tree climber, and top-notch mess-maker!

She’s also tired of her big sister, Sophie, always getting to do things first. For once, Jasmine wishes SHE could do something before Sophiesomething special, something different. The New Year approaches, and as the Toguchi family gathers in Los Angeles to celebrate, Jasmine is jealous that her sister gets to help roll mochi balls by hand with the women. Her mom says that Jasmine is still too young to join in, so she hatches a plan to help the men pound the mochi rice instead. Surely her sister has never done THAT before.

But pounding mochi is traditionally reserved for boys. And the mochi hammer is heavier than it looks. Can Jasmine build her case and her mochi-making muscles in time for New Year’s Day?

Jasmine Toguchi_Mochi Queen

Now, Debbi joins me in cyber chat about her most recent writing endeavors …

John Valeri:  Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen is the first in a new series of chapter books. What inspired you to branch out creatively – and what is the appeal of an expedited publishing schedule?

Debbi Michiko Florence: I’m excited about Jasmine Toguchi and her series launching this month! Mochi Queen was inspired by a newspaper article I read about a multigenerational Japanese American family that made mochi the traditional way over the New Year’s holiday. Traditionally, men pound steamed sweet rice in a mortar with a heavy wooden hammer until it becomes a sticky mass. Then the women pinch pieces off the big mass and roll smaller balls of mochi to eat. While one can enjoy mochi anytime, it’s considered good luck to eat it at the start of the New Year.

I wondered what would happen if a little girl wanted to break tradition and do the “boy job” of pounding mochi. And Mochi Queen was “born.” I didn’t intend on writing a series, but when my editor asked for three more books, I was thrilled! I had more stories I wanted to tell.

As for the expedited publishing schedule, I had no say in that. J I suspect that since readers of early chapter books age out quickly, it made sense to have all four books publish within a year, so readers could enjoy the entire series.

JV: You are a third generation Japanese American. In what ways do these books celebrate that culture – and how much of your fiction is informed by personal experience?

DMF: When I was growing up, I loved to read. Favorite authors included E.B. White, Ruth Chew, and Judy Blume. I would have loved if one of those books had featured a character that looked like me. When my daughter was growing up, she had a few more choices thanks to Linda Sue Park, Cynthia Kadohata, and Lisa Yee. Today, thanks in large part to the We Need Diverse Books organization, more books starring diverse characters are starting to be published.

When I sat down to write Jasmine’s story, I knew that while I wanted her Japanese heritage to play a part in her stories, I wanted even more for her stories to be universal. She is Japanese American, yes, but she is also 8 years old, a younger sister, a tree-climber, and a best friend with the same kinds of hopes and dreams and desires as other American kids her age. So to answer your question, these books celebrate Japanese culture by showing how tradition and heritage can be handed down and adapted. Much of what Jasmine experiences from celebrating Girl’s Day in Super Sleuth to climbing her neighbor’s apricot tree stem from my own childhood. I want Asian-American kids to delight in seeing themselves reflected in these stories, and I also want other readers to be able to see themselves as sisters or friends, as well as get a glimpse into a family that might not be exactly like theirs.

JV: This book centers on the relationship between sisters. Why is that sibling dynamic one that’s ripe for exploration – and in what ways do you hope this story speaks to young readers who might be experiencing similar rivalries?

DMF: A confession: I was the bossy big sister, like Sophie is to Jasmine in the series.

When I sit down to write a story, the character speaks to me first. Soon after I read that newspaper article, Jasmine started talking in my head, complaining about her older sister getting to do everything first and wishing she could do something before her sister. I admit to having a bit more (belated) sympathy for my younger sister as I drafted Mochi Queen. While I didn’t write the story with an intention to teach anything to my readers, I do hope that they can relate to Jasmine or Sophie. Maybe see that sisterhood is a special relationship fraught with many ups and downs and growing pains, but that in the end, love wins.

JV: Speaking of young readers … what are the unique considerations of writing for children, and why is it important to introduce them to books (and other forms of storytelling) in their early years?

DMF: I believe the most important thing a writer for children can do is to write with honesty and respect. Kids are a lot smarter and more aware than many adults may think. My inner age hovers between 8 and 12, so writing for this age group feels natural to me.

I’m definitely not an expert in early childhood education, but as a child who loved to read, I feel books are necessary, vital. Books allow kids to feel understood, to know they aren’t alone. They allow readers to have adventures and to walk in someone else’s shoes. Books give readers an opportunity to think critically, to learn, to feel all ranges of emotions, particularly, I hope, empathy.

Jasmine Toguchi_Super Sleuth

JV: Tell us about the collaborative process with illustrator Elizabet Vukovic. How does her imagery enhance your storytelling?

DMF: I adore Elizabet Vukovic’s illustrations for the series. I feel so lucky that my editor and the art director found her. I also feel very fortunate that my editor has kept me in the loop throughout the process. I saw early sketches for the books, and was able to provide input, particularly when it came to making sure the illustrations were accurate. Elizabet has done an amazing job of capturing the true essence of Jasmine – her determination, her spunk, her joy. I’m not a very visual person so when I first saw Jasmine and her family drawn by Elizabet, I actually cried with joy. I feel like the art definitely enhances the story, adding to the humor or the tension. Plus in addition to being talented, Elizabet is super nice. For my birthday as a surprise, Elizabet drew Jasmine holding a birthday cake.

JV: In your opinion, what is the role of the bookstore within its community – and how can attending author events help to enhance the reader/writer/bookseller relationship?​

DMF: Oh, how I love bookstores! One of the first things I did when I moved to the Mystic area was look up the closest bookstore. Bank Square Books and its newer sister bookstore, Savoy Books and Café, are examples of perfect bookstores. The stores are well stocked, comfortable, and inviting. The staff is friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful.

If I may quote Chuck Royce from opening day of Savoy Books and Café, “a town without a bookstore is no town at all.” I agree.

I have long enjoyed attending author events to meet favorite authors and to get to know new ones. I love hearing authors talk about the story behind the story, their publishing journey, and read from their recent work. It’s wonderful to get to meet them and talk with them. As a reader, it makes me feel like I have the inside scoop when an author divulges background information for a story. As a writer, I am inspired when authors share their journey and creative process. And as a book hoarder/collector, I love getting books signed by authors. And now was an author, I am looking forward to meeting readers. I definitely appreciate when bookstores offer author events.

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With thanks to Debbi Michiko Florence for her generosity of time and thought and to Morgan B. Dubin, Senior Publicist, Macmillan Children’s Publishing / First Second Books, for facilitating this interview.

Don’t forget: The author will appear at Mystic’s Bank Square Books on Saturday, July 15, at 1:00 p.m.

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