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!

17 Feb

H.M. Bouwman on writing A Crack in the Sea: “I am adding my words to a giant pile of kindling”

From the February 2017 issue of my Bartography Express email newsletter:

I’m delighted this month to feature A Crack in the Sea (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), the magical new middle-grade novel by my friend H.M. Bouwman, with beautiful illustrations by Yuko Shimizu.

The starred review the book received from Publishers Weekly began this way: “The Middle Passage and the fall of Saigon: two terrible events, separated by centuries, with seemingly nothing in common. But for Bouwman anything is possible, including the existence of a second world.”

Also, that second world? It includes sea monsters.

I’m giving away a signed copy of A Crack in the Sea to one Bartography Express subscriber residing in the US. If you’d like that winner to be you, just say so in a reply to this email before midnight on February 26, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, as always, I’ve got a brief Q&A with the author. But H.M. — I know her as Heather — did a terrific interview recently with Caroline Starr Rose. I recommend their conversation so highly that my feelings will not be one bit hurt if you go read that first and then come back for the one I had with Heather.

Chris: You mentioned [in the interview with Caroline Starr Rose] that, after your writing of A Crack in the Sea began with the image of a giant raft and the story of the Zong slave ship, “More images and stories and real world events influenced the writing as the manuscript progressed.” Can you please talk a little more about that interplay between the fiction you were creating and the unfolding of real life around you?

Heather: It’s hard to remember exactly how things progressed in drafting and revising, Chris! I feel like I’m making up a story about how the book was written….

That said, I do remember very clearly revising this book as I was seeing and hearing news reports about boatloads of people fleeing Syria. There are particular photos and stories….

I know, too, that I felt then (and still feel) in some ways very helpless to change world events. I can give money to organizations that help others, I can vote and write letters to support change, I can show up at marches — but I’m not myself a lawmaker or a doctor without borders or an aid worker.

But I do write stories. I think that writing for young people is a long game — you are putting stories out there that have the power (as all stories do) to influence people’s hearts and lives, but you don’t see any evidence of that for years sometimes, if ever. I hope that 20 years from now there will be a teacher or politician or medical professional or store clerk who will be a better person because of something they read when they were a kid — maybe even something I wrote. I feel sometimes like I am adding my words to a giant pile of kindling, all these loving and thoughtful and creative works for kids, and that immense bonfire burns so bright, and I love thinking that I’ve contributed to it.

In this illustration by Yuko Shimizu, the characters Caesar and Kinchin ride on the head of a Kraken.

Chris: I see lots of ways in which A Crack in the Sea will have just that power for its audience — and many ways in which your book will seem especially timely to readers. I’m struck not only by the themes of escape, immigration, and refuge, but also by the ways that different cultures and abilities (in both humans and in sea monsters!) are appreciated, and in how citizens of Raftworld intervene when their leader is prepared to make a decision out of pure self-interest that would have a dramatic and damaging effect on his own people.

Do you yourself see any of that? Now that your book has been published while life around it goes on, are you still noticing new ways in which A Crack in the Sea may resonate with kids, new ways in which readers may interpret its stories, new ways in which educators can put your book to use?

Heather: With this book, I was thinking mostly about issues of escape, immigration, and refuge (as you put it so well). For sure.

But yes, there were other issues, too, that floated to the surface as I was writing. For example, I have a friend and the son of a friend who are both faceblind, so I was thinking about that — and about my own struggles over the years with chronic back issues — thinking about the ways that invisible (or somewhat invisible) differences are handled in our society.

And I was thinking a lot about villains as I wrote this book: What makes for a good antagonist, and how might an antagonist be also a basically good person — a person capable of growth and change and empathy just as much as a protagonist?

And I was thinking, from 2011 forward (in other words, not just in the past couple of months, though it might seem that way) about how political leaders should make decisions, and how they should govern — not through autocratic or dictatorial means, and not through condescension, but through careful listening to the people and tending of their best and most noble hopes and dreams. (In this sense, Jupiter the storyteller is the ideal politician…which is kind of interesting, yes?)

I’m sure there were other things I’m not thinking of right now. Oh! I was thinking about food; I get hungry when I write. I’m fairly sure that’s why Caesar is always hungry.

28 Oct

October 2016 Bartography Express: “They are amazed at what he accomplished.”

To get Bartography Express in your inbox each month — and to have a shot at the November giveaway of Space Dictionary for Kids: The Everything Guide for Kids Who Love Space, written by Amy Anderson and Brian Anderson — you can sign up on my home page.

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30 Sep

September 2016 Bartography Express: “If children learn to love and respect the elephant through this book, I will be overjoyed”

To get Bartography Express in your inbox each month — and to have a shot at the October giveaway of Tiny Stitches, written by Gwendolyn Hooks and illustrated by Colin Bootman — you can sign up on my home page.

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31 Aug

August 2016 Bartography Express: The smashiest, the crashiest — and the animalsiest

To get Bartography Express in your inbox each month — and to have a shot at the September giveaway of This Is Our Baby, Born Today, written by Varsha Bajaj and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler — you can sign up on my home page.

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