The storymamas had a wonderful time interviewing author Debbi Florence Mochiko, creator of the Jasmine Toguchi chapter book series. The Storymamas were eager to meet Debbi and learn more about the books, her process, and what’s next for this talented writer. The Jasmine Toguchi series includes two books released so far. (More on what’s coming later in the interview). The main character, Jasmine is fun, feisty, adventurous, and loves flamingos! Jasmine is a character relatable to all kids. She loves spending time with her best friend, Linnie, gets annoyed by her big sister, doesn’t like to clean and has a favorite thinking spot in a peach tree.
We think her books are a great addition to any home, classroom or library. Debbi weaves in common threads among the books, and you feel like you really know the characters as you continue to read the stories. Jasmine comes from a Japanese-American family, and Debbi incorporates some Japanese traditions in the books to teach the reader about the culture. Who knew what an involved process it was to make mochi and that there are specific jobs for each gender?! Debbi has also shared with us that there are two more Jasmine books in the works, Drummer Girl (release date 4/3/18) and Flamingo Keeper (release date 7/3/18). We can’t wait to read these to learn more about Jasmine’s adventures and the trouble she might find.
During our conversation we asked Debbi to answer three questions about the books and three questions about her (with some bonus questions too). Here is what she had to say:
3 Questions about Jasmine Toguchi
What three words would you use to describe Jasmine?
Spunky, confident, courageous
How did the character of Jasmine evolve?
Before she responded she prefaced the answer with “I’m going to sound like a crazy person but” then she began to explain that the character of Jasmine just popped in her head and started talking to her.
She also told us that she read a newspaper article about a multi-generational Japanese-American family making mochi the traditional way and after reading, she thought to herself, “What would happen if a little girl wanted to do the boy job?” She told us that growing up in the Japanese American culture there are a lot of rules, traditions and traditional roles, and again the story idea popped in her head and she thought about how cool it would be to have a girl try and convince the family to do the boy’s role. But she pushed that idea aside for a bit….
As Debbi continued to explain, that like we see in the books, Jasmine is pushy, confident and courageous and she kept talking to Debbi and she knew she just had to tell her story.
We love how you weave in elements of Japanese culture into the books, was this in the original pitch idea for the books? Did it start out as a series?
Debbi explained that it has been quite a journey before she started writing. We learned that she also has written several YA (young adult) novels that haven’t “seen the light of day.”
She start writing about 15 or 16 years ago from a Japanese-American point of view, which isn’t something you saw a lot of back then. She tells us when you saw Asian characters in books, it was usually historical fiction or an immigrant struggle. She didn’t have many models of contemporary Asian American characters until Milicient Min by Lisa Yee or Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park came out. These books motivated her to write stories like that.
When she wrote the Jasmine story, she knew it wasn’t a YA story, she knew it wasn’t going to be a 17 year old girl pounding mochi, but also knew she didn’t want to do a picture book, so she figured chapter books, which would be the type of storytelling she was use to doing.
She began to study chapter books. Jasmine started out as a stand-alone book. Debbi tells us that she accumulated many rejections before getting an offer. When her editor asked if she could do it as a series, she said sure. Three more books? Sure! But she really didn’t have any other ideas. But once she began to think about it more as a series, she wanted it to be universal: friendship story, family story, but also wanted it to have Japanese culture woven into it. And strived to find that right balance. We think she has done a great job!
Jasmine loves flamingos, is that because it is your favorite animal?
After writing the Mochi Queen book, her editor had her go back and add layers that could carry through the series. She asked about Jasmine’s favorite things, could she have a favorite animal? Debbi wanted to create a favorite animal that was unique and couldn’t be a pet, and she also tells us that her editor is from Miami, hence a flamingo was a perfect fit.
Do you have say in the illustrations?
Debbi explained she’s been very lucky to have seen the sketches and is able to give input. She thinks it has to do with the authenticity of integrating Japanese traditions in the correct way. In an early draft of her book the picture that accompanied a scene where they were rolling out mochi, had them using a rolling pin. Although it wasn’t explained in the text, the picture needed to be changed to the correct process, which is to pull mochi balls and roll them in your hands.
What is your favorite kind of mochi?
Debbi’s eyes lit up and our mouths started to water as she explained about her favorite type of mochi, Azuki. It is a red bean, that’s sweet and looks like chocolate. She told us that if you bite into it thinking it’s chocolate people usually don’t like it. But she enjoys it and wishes she can get it around her.
3 Questions about You
If you weren’t a writer, what would you want to be and why?
Debbi originally started off with a degree in zoology and wanted to be a zoo educator. She had her dream job for about five years, a curator of education at the Detroit Zoo. Underneath, she says, she’s always wanted to be a writer. But if she could start all over and not be a writer, she would love to be an editor.
What is one book that has stuck with you since you’ve read it?
She reads about 100 books per year. And it’s getting harder to keep so many books in her head. So she offered us a favorite from her childhood, Charlotte’s Web. (Which is also Jasmine’s favorite book).
What is one item in your fridge that tells us about you?
Laughing before answering…She said that she isn’t the cook in the family, her husband is. So she doesn’t even know what is in it right now. But then told us all about, Umeboshi, a Japanese pickled plum, which is actually a type of apricot. She explains that it is very, very sour, It’s her favorite kind of treat, a comfort food she explains, she also says it’s an acquired taste since it’s very sour. But she says her fridge will always have it.