Debbi Michiko Florence https://debbimichikoflorence.com/ is the author of a multitude of books for young readers, including the highly successful Jasmine Toguchi and My Furry Foster Family chapter book series. I don’t have room to list all the accolades she’s won. (Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen alone garnered ten awards.) She recently launched her debut middle grade novel, Keep It Together Keiko Carter which has already earned glowing reviews and been chosen as a New England Book Award Finalist.
I just finished Keep It Together Keiko Carter and I loved how Keiko cared so much about everyone around her and tried to make everyone get along. Sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn’t, but she learned much about herself and others in the process. You’ve captured the complex dynamic of middle school perfectly. How do you manage to connect so well with this age group?
Most of your previous books were early chapter books for 7-10-year-olds. My granddaughters adored them. How is writing for the chapter book set different than writing for middle schoolers? Which age group is more challenging?
I’m so happy to hear your granddaughters enjoyed my chapter books. While writing chapter books and middle grade novels both require strong character development, the plots for chapter books are more straight-forward. Since chapters books are for the newly independent reader, I focus on one main story arc and one main emotional arc with no subplots. While I am a pantser by nature and do not outline for my novels, I do outline for my chapter books. There isn’t a lot of room for me to stray and wander off. I think writing for any audience comes with their own challenges. I love writing for both chapter book and middle grade readers.
You draw on your Japanese heritage in your writing, yet each of your books is totally relatable for readers of other cultures, even when you address the difficult topic of bigotry. How do you decide what aspect of the Japanese culture to highlight in a book? Do you rely on your own experience or do you couple your experience with research?
It’s important to me to write contemporary stories starring Japanese American characters. When I was growing up in Los Angeles, I was fortunate to have a large Asian American community. While being Japanese American is integral to who I am, back then, I saw myself as a typical American teen. I loved reading contemporary stories when I was a young reader, but I never saw Japanese American characters dealing with friendship challenges, crushes, and family drama.
When writing my books, I always start with a premise – usually focusing on relationships, such as family or friendship or in the case or my middle grade novels, romance – and a character. My characters are always Japanese American, and being Japanese American involves more than just that identifier. Culture and tradition run deep and it’s natural that many of my own experiences and emotions become part of my characters.
I also research when necessary, making sure I get facts right, particularly in the Jasmine Toguchi series since Japanese culture played a big part in each book. For Jasmine Toguchi Drummer Girl, I took a taiko lesson so I would know how Jasmine would feel learning to play the Japanese drum. That was so much fun!
I remember that you had a group of Japanese drummers at your book launch, too. They were amazing.
You’ve volunteered as a raptor rehabilitator and worked as a zoo educator. Your family includes a rescue dog, rabbit, and duck. Your love for animals comes through in My Furry Foster Family series. A dog has an important role in the plot of Keep It Together Keiko Carter, too. How do you approach creating animal characters for your stories?
With the exception of the My Furry Foster Family series which obviously had to have animals as a focus for each book, I didn’t purposefully intend to add animals to my other books. It just kind of happened. It makes sense, though, because I have been an animal lover all my life and I have a degree in zoology.
The flamingo in the Jasmine Toguchi series came about because my editor asked me what Jasmine’s favorite animals was. I knew that Jasmine, due to her independent nature, wouldn’t choose a typical animal and because my editor was originally from Miami, the flamingo seemed like a fun choice. I did research flamingos, particularly for the fourth book Flamingo Keeper. The ultimate reward was getting to feed juvenile flamingos for my book launch at the L.A. Zoo!
For Keep It Together Keiko Carter, I gave Conner a dog because it added layer to make him likeable since he is not very nice to Keiko at the beginning of the book. He was a dog-lover so he couldn’t be all bad, right? And then it just became a great connection between Keiko and Conner that she loved dogs and wanted one, too.
Readers can expect to see other animals pop up in future books for sure. Having worked at a pet store, the Humane Society, and having now had six dogs in my life definitely helps me write dogs into my books. (I’ve also had fish, hamsters, a guinea pig, snakes, birds/parrots, and a cat.)
You’ve traveled widely and have lived in China and Mexico. Have you mined those experiences in your books? Will you in the future?
I haven’t yet, although I do have a few ideas for books set in Japan where I spent many summers when I was young and is one of my favorite places to visit. And I love books about traveling so don’t be surprised if I write a travel story.
Both Jasmine Toguchi and My Furry Foster Family were series. I hear that there will be a sequel to Keep It Together Keiko Carter, too. How is writing a series different than writing a one-off title? Do you have any advice for writers who’d like to see their books made into a series?
I think writing a series is not hugely different than writing any book, you need a strong main character and a good story. To be honest, I originally wrote the first Jasmine Toguchi book as a stand-alone because I had the idea for Mochi Queen and couldn’t let go of it. I’d been writing novels up till then and knew that the idea for this book wasn’t quite right for a middle grade novel since my main character was in 3rd grade. So, after studying many chapter books, I wrote my first chapter book. But when my editor made an offer on Mochi Queen, she asked for a series which was wonderful, and I came up for three more ideas.
A similar thing happened for Keep It Together, Keiko Carter. My editor asked if I had an idea for a sequel and I told her I really wanted to write a book from the point-of-view from Keiko’s best friend – and so I got to write Just Be Cool Jenna Sakai, which will be published in August 2021. I’m very excited about this book!
One thing I can share about writing series is to give your main character unique traits that can be carried throughout the series – such as Jasmine’s love for flamingos. I’m co-teaching a virtual workshop at The Highlights Foundation in a few weeks about writing chapter book series. I’m hoping it will become an in-person workshop in the future.
Do you have another project in the works? What final thoughts do you have for our readers?
I just turned in copyedits for Just Be Cool Jenna Sakai. I feel very lucky to have been able to write Jenna’s story. While Keiko is a people-pleasure, Jenna is a bit more prickly and independent, so she was a fun character to write. Readers will get to see Keiko in this book, too. I’m working on another middle grade book with my editor at Scholastic, hopefully to be published in 2022, and I’m currently revising a middle grade fantasy about a girl who ends up in a Japanese fable. I have ideas for a chapter book series, as well.
I co-authored a picture book biography with Jamie Michalek, Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites with gorgeous art by Yuko Jones that will be published in fall of 2021 (Farrar Straus Giroux). This will be my picture book debut and I’m very excited!
While at a glance one may be awed (as I am) that since 2016 I have had 16 chapter books and one novel published with two more novels and a picture book biography on the way, it’s important for me to share that I have had a very long journey. I started writing with the intention of getting published in 2001. I have collected hundreds of rejections. I have written books that will never see the light of day (rightly so). I didn’t give up. And now my dreams are coming true.
I am in awe, not only of the number of books you’ve published, but of all the projects you have in the works. Wow! Thank you so much for stopping by.
You can purchase personally signed copies of Debbi’s books from Bank Street Books through these links: Keiko Carter: https://www.banksquarebooks.com/keiko-carter
Jasmine Toguchi: https://debbimichikoflorence.com/books/jasmine-toguchi/
If you’d like to learn more about Debbi Michiko Florence and her books, visit her website at https://debbimichikoflorence.com/