written by Debbi Michiko Florence
Writing the Stories I Looked for as an Asian American Reader
I am sansei, third generation Japanese American, which means my grandparents immigrated to the States. I was born in San Francisco and raised in Los Angeles at a time when I was fortunate to have a large Japanese American community. I remember my mom inviting my friends over for the Japanese holiday of Girl’s Day. She treated it like a birthday party of sorts, and introduced my non-Japanese American friends to this celebration of girls. It made me proud to be Japanese American and it made me proud to be a girl.
As a young reader, I favored books about friendship with a touch of romance, but I never found any of those books with characters that looked like me and lived a similar life. There were books about World War II and the incarceration of Japanese Americans, which painted me as the enemy and the other. And there were immigration stories, which of course are important, but that wasn’t my life. When my daughter was growing up, we were thrilled to read Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee and Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park – contemporary stories about Asian American characters dealing with their everyday lives. These are the books that made me believe I could write the stories of my heart.
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I’m overjoyed that Keep It Together, Keiko Carter, and now Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai are available to readers. Being able to write these middle grade novels starring Japanese American main characters dealing with changing friendships, first crushes, and family drama is a dream come true.
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Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai launched this summer, a companion to Keep It Together, Keiko Carter. Jenna’s motto is “heartbreak is for suckers.” After she gets dumped before winter break and has to deal with her parents’ messy divorce, her motto is reinforced. She decides she’s going to just be cool and focus on school and being the best journalist ever in newspaper club even though her ex-, Elliot, is a member, too. She escapes to a Broadway-themed diner to be alone, until cute-but-incredibly-annoying Rin Watanabe shows up and keeps stealing her booth. They both stubbornly end up sharing the booth. As the days go by, Jenna immerses herself in researching for an article she is sure will help her beat out Elliot for a journalism scholarship, and Rin starts to become a comfortable part of her routine. When she must make a difficult decision that could end her friendship with Rin, Jenna is forced to face her all of her feelings, something she’s been avoiding for a long time.
While Keep It Together, Keiko Carter was about learning to speak up for your own happiness, this companion novel is about learning to trust and opening your heart to the people who matter the most.
It means the world to me to write stories about friendship and first crushes with Japanese American representation. I hope my books help Asian American readers feel seen and proud. I hope all readers are able to see some of themselves, their friends, and their families in my characters.
About Debbi Michiko Florence
Debbi Michiko Florence is the author of Keep It Together, Keiko Carter, a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection and New England Book Award finalist, and the Jasmine Toguchi chapter books. A third-generation Japanese American and native Californian, Debbi lives in Connecticut with her husband, rescue dog, rabbit, and duck. Visit her online at debbimichikoflorence.com.