Discover Nikkei

https://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2023/10/2/debbi-michiko-florence/

Where Dreams Come True—The Works of Debbi Michiko Florence

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” they say. But when an Asian American child with a less than cheerful outlook on reading in Wisconsin suddenly sees another Asian American on the cover of Debbi Michiko Florence’s book, Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen, the cover is nothing but subject to judgment. Although it is unknown what exactly the Asian American child’s initial assessment of the book was, outside sources observing the spellbound look on her face as she attentively flipped through the pages provide a pretty clear explanation of what happened after that first glance.

Taking out the location of Wisconsin and replacing it with any other setting you may choose will still make the narrative entirely plausible. However, if the time period were changed, such as if the story was set when Florence herself was growing up, things would have been a little different.

Debbi Michiko Florence (Photo by Monique Sourhino)

Despite growing up with a sizable community of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles, Florence never really found representation in a hobby she loved: reading. She never expected much with regard to finding characters who looked or lived like her, either, nor did it seem to cross her mind such ideas were really possible, and it was only in adulthood that these shortcomings really stood out to her.

Her childhood love of reading turned into a minor in English, ultimately taking her to a decision to pursue writing with much support from both immediate and extended family. Support from publishers, however, took even more time to establish.

Finally aware of the lack of representation found in children’s books, although slowly increasing by the time her daughter was in school with authors like Linda Sue Park, Lisa Yee, and Grace Lin, Florence set out to do one thing: “write contemporary stories about friendship and family, first crushes and romance with Japanese American main characters.”

But when Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen, centered around a young girl desiring to pound the mochi on New Year’s against tradition that such a task was always provided for men, was first sent out to editors, the results were instant rejections. The reason? As Florence recalls, “One rejection in particular said that the story focused too much on Japanese culture and that it was ‘too narrow a focus.’”

While it is a primary goal for Florence to allow Asian American readers to be able to identify with those in her books, her books are not made strictly for the Asian American eye, either. She writes, “I think it’s important for all readers to be able to connect to characters — be it because the characters look like them and have similar experiences or to learn about other cultures and traditions.”

With the formation of We Need Diverse Books in 2014, editors, too, started to see Mochi Queen beyond just the belief that it was a story only a tiny portion of their audiences will relate to, thus officially bringing Florence’s book series to life.

To bring representation is one thing, but to do it correctly is another. Unfortunately, many instances occur where Asian American children, hoping to find comfort in a character that looks like them, end up disappointed realizing the character is only there to portray the “smart student,” or is continuously mentioned as speaking with a strong, unintelligible accent. As Florence considers her characters, she remains mindful of stereotypes, while hoping most that her “characters [can] be layered and deep, like real people.”

In Sweet and Sour, Mai Hirano is not the quiet, reserved Japanese-American girl people would assume her to be. She isn’t one to let actions that hurt her slide under the rug, she shares her passions clearly and loudly, and her Japanese skills are far from perfect. Mai isn’t made to be a perfect person who is immune from wrongdoing, but she’s a realistic, detailed portrayal of a young tween with lots left to learn.

Aside from trying to avoid perpetuating stereotypes, when developing stories, Florence finds inspiration and influence from any and every aspect of life. While taiko performances are a subject of interest that has always been in the back of her mind, it was not until Jasmine Toguchi Drummer Girl that she found herself attending a class, asking to be taught as if she were the young Jasmine. Florence’s degree in Zoology and long-established love for animals found incredible similarities to the traits and passions of Mai Hirano in Sweet and Sour.

As Jasmine Toguchi and her family go on a trip to Japan, Florence provides the family the opportunity to visit all of the places she has previously been to. A 2010 article about a Japanese-American family making mochi every New Year was where Florence suddenly found herself being told by Jasmine to create her Mochi Queen story, and the rest only goes from there.

Another notable source of inspiration has led to one of Florence’s most current projects, the original source being directly from a 2019 visit to the Japanese American National Museum. The museum had a special exhibition on kaiju at the time of her visit, which is precisely when Mark Nagata, a kaiju toy maker, and his fascinating story first appeared on her radar.

Little did she know then that she would become so intrigued by his story, she would end up with multiple interviews, a visit to his studio where she observed him in his natural habitat, and go on to write Monster Maker: The Strange Creatures of Mark Nagata, to be published by Reycraft Books.

While news of Monster Maker: The Strange Creatures of Mark Nagata will continue to follow in the upcoming months, Florence is behind the scenes working on her debut middle-grade series, Last Chance Academy, set to be published by Aladdin Books in 2025. The story centers on Megumi Mizuno and her experiences of being sent to an exclusive boarding school, Last Chance Academy.

As Florence shares, “When silver envelopes appear under the doors of all the students, Meg is determined to win a mysterious treasure hunt with a prize that could reunite her with her dad, but soon learns there is a bigger mystery at the school to discover. This story is also about friendship and family.”

 

To find out more about Debbi Michiko Florence and her upcoming works, she recommends subscribing to her monthly newsletter or following her on Instagram.

 

© 2023 Chiana Fujiwara

authors children's literature Debbi Michiko Florence Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen (book) Jasmine Toguchi series (book) Mark Nagata Sweet and Sour (book) writers
About the Author

Chiana Fujiwara is a fifth generation Japanese American, fifth generation Mexican American, and second generation Chinese American college student from southern California majoring in Psychology. Having strong connections to Japanese American Internment during World War II, she has since developed a passion for further researching the stories of her family as well as the general period and its impacts at large. Other hobbies include ancient Chinese poetry and everything that has to do with history.

Updated October 2023

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