21 Jun

Bartography Express: “I hope I wasn’t the mean cousin Eddie!”

The Q&A this month in my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with my friend Debbi Michiko Florence, whose Jasmine Toguchi chapter book series debuts next month.

This month, I’m giving away to one subscriber a set of the first two books in the series, Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen and Jasmine Toguchi: Super Sleuth, both of which will be available July 11. The books have illustrations by Elizabet Vukovic and are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I’ve already read Mochi Queen, which Booklist‘s review describes as “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.” I’m eager as can be to get my hands on Super Sleuth.

Chris: To what extent are your Jasmine Toguchi books in general — and Mochi Queen in particular — rooted in your own experiences? Did you have a “mean cousin Eddie”? Were you the mean cousin Eddie?

Debbi: Your question about mean cousin Eddie made me laugh out loud, and gave me pause. I hope I wasn’t the mean cousin Eddie! And no, he is not based on anyone in my family. I will admit, however, that I was like Sophie and was a bossy big sister to my younger sister. In my defense, my sister always seemed happy to go along with any of my games and ideas.

There is much in the Jasmine books based on my own childhood. Little things, like I grew up in Los Angeles in a neighborhood very much like Jasmine’s. I really did have a neighbor who let me climb her apricot tree. My mom, like Jasmine’s, did make a lot of rules. (My daughter who is grown will tell you I was the same kind of rule-maker when she was a child.) We used chopsticks for many meals. My maternal grandmother (who lived with us) spoke broken English and my paternal grandparents lived in Hiroshima like Jasmine’s obaachan does.

Growing up in my family, I enjoyed Japanese traditions. While we never made our own mochi, we did have big New Year celebrations with extended family with a lot of food (including store-bought). Food has always been a big deal in all our celebrations. In book 2, Super Sleuth, just like Jasmine and her sister, my sister and I celebrated Girl’s Day at home by setting up the special dolls and taking photos. When we got older, my mom invited our girlfriends over to celebrate — much like a birthday party. I loved Girl’s Day!

Author Debbi Michiko Florence. Photo by Roy Thomas.

Chris: The Toguchi family’s mochi-making reminded me a lot of the tamalada that my in-laws host each year, and Mochi Queen makes me want to pay enough attention next time we make tamales to be able to view that process through the eyes of an eight-year-old like Jasmine. Since your family didn’t make your own mochi, what were the challenges in researching that part of the story and telling it right?

Debbi: Oh, I love tamales! What fun! I’d never heard of a tamalada and I’m very intrigued now.

While I’d never made mochi in the traditional way, I have eaten a LOT of mochi over my lifetime. I’m kind of a mochi snob and don’t like the pre-packed ones sold in markets (not that I can find any here in coastal Connecticut). I love fresh mochi best and when I lived in the Bay Area in California, I would drive to the specialty shops that made fresh mochi in J-Town (Japantown) in San Jose and San Francisco. I miss that! My favorite mochi is the one with azuki (red bean) in the middle.

But that certainly didn’t prepare me for writing Jasmine’s story. My research consisted of interviewing my mom about her memories and experience making mochi, watching a LOT of YouTube videos, and going to a mochi-tsuki event. I had hoped to be able to have a turn pounding mochi, but it was an event for kids so only kids were invited up. It helped to watch a little girl close to Jasmine’s age try to pound mochi. The hammer was heavy and she needed assistance from an adult.

I haven’t given up the dream of being able to pound mochi, though. I’m keeping my eye out for mochi-tsuki events and someday maybe I’ll get a chance to pound the steamed sweet rice into mochi!

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