All things Jasmine, Mochi, Flamingos..Interview with Debbi Mochiko

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!

*BONUS Questions:

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.

Thank you Debbi for taking the time to chat with the Storymamas! To learn more about Debbi Mochiko visit her website.  Or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Sparkle Boy Shines Bright

Author Lesléa Newman contacted Storymamas about her newest book, Sparkle Boy. We were so excited to get this one in the mail and share it with our own kiddos as well as the students we teach. A little boy, Casey, loves all the sparkly things his sister is wearing: her skirt, her bracelet, her nail polish and he wants to wear sparkly things too. But her sister doesn’t agree and claims that boys can’t wear sparkly things. We love the adults in the book who fully support Casey’s interests. Eventually once Casey’s sister hears other kids making fun of him she sticks up for him and believes he can be whoever he wants to be and wear whatever he feels comfortable wearing. It’s a story of acceptance, kindness, sibling love and the freedom to be who you want to be! We love the beautiful, textured illustrations and know that this book will be one that makes children believe they can also be themselves and free to break the gender stereotypes. Lesléa was so kind to answer some questions for us about her book, read on to hear about her writing process and a little bit about her as a person!

3 Questions about Sparkle Boy

What was your inspiration for writing Sparkle Boy?

All the “sparkle boys” in my life, young and old! I have a good friend who loves to dress up in silky nightgowns and matching peignoirs. He only feels safe to do so in the privacy of his home. I have thought a lot about that. Then one year, I attended family week in Provincetown and met many little boys who love to wear tutus. One boy’s father said, “I wish he could dress like this all year instead of just for one week.” I thought a lot about that, too. I wrote SPARKLE BOY in hopes of expanding these “safety zones.” The entire world should be a safe place for any one of us to dress as we please without fear of ridicule or harm.

What do you hope children take away after reading this book?

I hope children will take away the idea that we all deserve to be who we are, and that skirts, nail polish, and glittery jewelry have no gender. They are for everyone who wants to wear them. I hope the book relays the message that everyone deserves acceptance and respect, and that diversity enriches our world.

What was your process for writing Sparkle Boy?

I wrote SPARKLE BOY the way I write all my books: by longhand in a spiral notebook. I wrote the first draft quickly, without looking back. Then I read it over and revised it. Then I read the new second draft and revised it. After I did this about twenty times (really!) I showed it to my spouse, who is an excellent reader, to my writer’s group which is made up of extremely smart women, and my wonderful agent. After I got their feedback, I revised and revised and revised. Then when the book was ready, my agent sent it out and I was lucky enough to have it accepted by Lee & Low, which is a fabulous children’s book press whose mission is to fill the world with diverse children’s books. Then my editor gave me notes and I revised once more. And then the text of the book was done and ready to be illustrated by the fantastically talented Maria Mola.

3 Questions about You

If you weren’t a writer, what would you want to be and why?

Ooh, this is a hard question. I would want to work with animals because I am such an animal lover. But I can’t stand the sight of blood (I pass our easily!) so I could never be a veterinarian. I would love to be an animal therapist and bring dogs and cats to nursing homes and hospitals. When my dad was recently in the hospital, he was visited by a collie named Alfie and it cheered him up so much. But I think I will stick to being a writer (and continue to write books about animals, such as Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed and The Best Cat in The World).

What is one book that has stuck with you since you’ve read it?

Oh, there are just so many, it’s hard to pick just one. But if I had to, it would be Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl which taught me more about human nature than any other book I have ever read.

What is one item in your fridge that tells us about you?

There is always some form of dark chocolate in my refrigerator. My beloved grandmother, who lived to be 99 years old always ate a tiny bit of chocolate every night so “life shouldn’t be bitter.” I am proud to carry on this tradition!

 

BONUS Question

What does your workspace look like? 

I actually have two work spaces, one at home, and one away from home. At home, I have a big room with a couch and a desk and chair and lots of bookshelves. My desk faces a wall and on the wall, among my awards is the only painting I have ever done: a portrait of my dog, Angus who came to live with my family when I was 12. Outside of my home, I work at a writer’s collective called The Writers Mill where I share a room with 3 other women. Our motto is “Industry Loves Company.” I have also been known to write in coffee shops and hotel rooms, and on planes, trains, and buses. That’s the beauty of writing: all you need is a pen and notebook and an open heart and mind and you can do it anywhere.

The wall of awards and her first painting!

 

Thank you Lesléa for writing such an important book and making it entertaining, adorable and one that all kids can connect to in some way.

The Significant Interview with Dusti Bowling

When I love a book, I can’t stop thinking and talking about it.  When I read my ARC of Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling, I must have driven my book loving friends crazy…I couldn’t stop raving about it.  I read this book over the summer and truly loved every page of it.  The main character, Aven, was such a real, believable character, who was born without arms, making her standout even more as the new kid when her family moved out west.  I was so intrigued to read her story.  But Insignificant Events was more than just a story about her life and unexpected relationships in her new school.  There was mystery, raw emotions, friendship, and so much more, neatly wrapped up in a little present.  Thank you for the gift, Dusti Bowling.

3 Questions about Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Aven’s disability is one that is not often, or maybe even never, written about.  Where did your inspiration come from?  

The seed was first planted in my mind to write a story about a child with limb differences after my cousin was injured in Iraq back in 2008. At that time, we were told he had lost his eye and was going to lose his arm. In the days following that phone call, I couldn’t stop thinking about what life was going to be like for him with only one arm. I did a lot of research about it and found there were almost no children’s books featuring characters with limb differences back then. But my cousin passed away a couple of weeks later, and I didn’t think about it again for several years. Then one day I saw a video of Barbie Thomas taking care of her baby, driving, folding towels, and working out at the gym. She did everything with her feet because she didn’t have arms. That video was really eye-opening for me. Over the next year or so, I kept thinking about this character who was really capable and strong and funny and unique. She wouldn’t have arms and would do everything with her feet. That character simply wouldn’t leave me alone until I put her down on paper. And as far as I know, Aven is the only character out there with both arms missing.

What kind of research did you do to ensure you were accurate in what Aven’s life would be like?  

I couldn’t find much written about life without arms, so I relied heavily on videos of people, particularly one series of videos called “Tisha Unarmed.” Tisha’s videos were incredibly educational for me, showing how she did everything without arms, from getting dressed to grocery shopping to carving a pumpkin. When I finished my manuscript, I reached out to Tisha to see if she would be willing to read it. Thankfully she agreed and really loved the story.

We’d love to know more about how the plot came to be for Insignificant Events.  Did it start out as a mystery? Was it always going to be about a child born with a disability or is that the way the story evolved?

The story was always about Aven born without arms from my very first thought. I wanted it to just be about her adjusting to a move and meeting Connor (who always had Tourette’s) and becoming friends. But the first draft didn’t have a mystery or even a western theme park! When I first queried the manuscript to agents, I got a lot of “I love your voice, but this story is too quiet” and “I love the characters, but this story doesn’t really have a plot.” I took all the advice I received and completely rewrote the manuscript. I was already thinking about writing a story set in a western theme park, so I decided to use that setting for Aven instead of saving it for another book. I added the mystery to move the plot along better, and it ended up becoming very meaningful to me. I’m so glad I listened to the feedback I received because it improved the story massively.

3 Questions about Dusti Bowling

If you weren’t a writer, what would you want to be and why?

I’ve always wanted to own a “dessert shop” where you can get just about any kind of dessert you want: pastries, pies, ice cream, candies, etc. It would also be a great place for tea parties and children’s birthday parties. I love baking, and I think this would just be so much fun. Maybe I’ll still do this one day!

What is one book that has stuck with you since you’ve read it?

Just one?!? I recently read Wishtree by Katherine Applegate. I loved the simplicity and beauty of the story so much. I won’t be at all surprised if it wins her another Newbery award.

What is one item in your fridge that tells us about you?

The giant jelly smear across the shelf.