Mochi? Did someone say ‘mochi’? Japanese sticky rice cakes have always been one of my favorite treats!
I’m so happy to welcome Debbi Michiko Florence back to Alphabet Soup today to talk about Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen (FSG, 2017), the first book in her brand new early chapter book series officially hitting shelves on July 11. It’s actually being released simultaneously with Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth (Book 2). Double the goodness, double the fun!
I’d been keeping my fingers crossed ever since Debbi first mentioned working on Mochi Queen, hoping and hoping over the years that just the right editor would champion this heartwarming story about an 8-year-old Japanese American girl who wants to help her family make mochi for New Year’s. So, it was beyond thrilling to hear that flamingo-and-dessert-loving Jasmine, a spirited and determined royal mess maker, would not only have her own book, but her own series. And how much do I love that the first title in the series is about food? 🙂
In Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen, Jasmine is bummed because she’s too young to help the women roll and shape the mochi. It certainly doesn’t help having a bossy older sister who gets to do everything first. Walnuts! Just once, Jasmine wants to beat Sophie to the punch. Too young to roll mochi? She’ll pound mochi instead. Never mind that pounding is traditionally reserved for males, and that the hammer is quite heavy. Never mind that her mean cousin Eddie keeps calling her a weakling and taunting her. Jasmine will build up her muscles. She will find a way to convince her Dad and uncle that she can and should be allowed to pound mochi with them. Take that, Sophie!
Readers will laugh and cheer Jasmine on as she twirls her pasta extra hard, lifts up her younger cousin, and hangs from a tree to show everybody just how strong she really is. And they will love meeting Jasmine’s supportive extended family and learning a little about Japanese culture. Of course they will be curious to taste mochi if they haven’t already done so, maybe even be tempted to make their own.
Food, family, fun, and flamingos — who could ask for anything more? Let’s hear what Debbi has to say about Jasmine, a series she calls “a dream come true.” And stick around for some yummy homemade mochi after our chat. 🙂
🌸 AUTHOR CHAT WITH DEBBI MICHIKO FLORENCE 🌸
What inspired Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen, and how did you go about developing Jasmine’s character?
In 2010, I came across a newspaper article about a multigenerational Japanese American family who got together every New Year’s to make mochi (a chewy rice treat) the traditional way, by pounding steamed sweet rice into a sticky mass and rolling them into balls. I couldn’t stop thinking about the family and how fun it must have been to make mochi together like that.
I thought about the roles of mochi making. Traditionally, men pounded mochi while women rolled mochi. I wondered what would happen if a Japanese American girl wanted to break the family rules and tradition and pound mochi with the boys. I imagined a spunky, confident young girl. Not only that, but she was a younger sister who was frustrated that her older sister always got to do everything first. This character wouldn’t stop talking to me. She told me her name and her dilemma. She was persistent and I could no longer ignore her. By the time I sat down to write her story, I knew her well because she’d been talking in my head for months.
Tell us about hearing the fabulous news from your editor that in addition to publishing Mochi Queen, she was also interested in a four-book series about Jasmine. Had the thought of a series ever crossed your mind?
When I wrote Mochi Queen, I knew that the premise didn’t work as a YA novel, the genre I’d been writing for years. I thought maybe possibly a picture book, but I didn’t have experience writing picture books. I am comfortable with the novel format so the idea of writing a chapter book seemed a little less daunting. I then spent months reading and studying chapter books by authors I admired (Grace Lin and Kate Messner to name two) before I wrote my first draft. I did not envision writing a series. I wanted to tell Jasmine’s story and I’d accomplished that with Mochi Queen.
So having my editor, Grace Kendall, ask me to write a series thrilled me. I loved writing about Jasmine and it made me happy to think I would get to write more stories about her! Once I sat down to think about more books, the ideas came very quickly.
What have been the greatest challenges about this project so far? How has creating these stories stretched you as a writer?
The greatest challenges were writing faster and juggling the books. I had worked on Mochi Queen off and on for four years. I had much less time to write the rest of the series. I signed my contract the spring of 2015. Books 1 and 2 were due in December of 2015, book 3 due in April 2016, and book 4 due in December of 2016.
While book 1 (Mochi Queen) was already written, I worked with Grace on revisions. Books 2 – 4 were only ideas when I signed the contract, so I had to write three books from scratch during that time. Not only that but I had to juggle the books – I was doing copy edits on Mochi Queen, revising Super Sleuth, and writing Drummer Girl. Not all at the same exact time, but during the course of several months, I’d be bouncing back and forth between books. I was amazed (and relieved) to discover that it was not overwhelming for me, though it was challenging. I work well under pressure and I’m a fan of deadlines and schedules. Plus, I was really having fun writing the books and working with Grace.
As for stretching me as a writer, I think it made me realize that I could work faster. Having an editor I trust made a big difference. For books 3 and 4, I sent Grace earlier drafts than I would have had I been querying/subbing. I feel like we work well together and she truly helps me be a better writer.
I’m thinking Jasmine Toguchi is the first early chapter book series to have a Japanese American girl as the main character — very exciting (and about time)! What are some of the over-arching themes and messages you hope to convey with this series? As you wrote the stories, did you make a conscious effort to dispel cultural and/or gender stereotypes?
I am beyond thrilled to have a series for young readers starring a Japanese American girl! I’m not sure I consciously wrote with a message in mind, other than wanting to write about a Japanese American girl.
When I was growing up, I loved reading books like Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, the witch books by Ruth Chew, and everything by Judy Blume. I identified with the characters’ stories, but I would have loved if at least one of those characters had looked like me.
Back then, the only book I found that had Japanese American characters was the autobiographical book Farewell To Manzanar by Jeanne Watatsuki Houston, about Jeanne and her family and their experience being interned during World War II due to their race. While the book interested me, I didn’t directly identify with the characters. Those were not my experiences growing up in Los Angeles.
When my daughter Caitlin was growing up, she loved the books Tea with Milk by Allen Say, Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park, Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadohata, and Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee. But once she started reading young adult novels, she couldn’t find contemporary or fantasy books starring Asian American characters. Thanks to the amazing folks over at We Need Diverse Books, more books featuring Asian Americans in all genres are being published, though I’d love to see even more.
I wanted to write contemporary stories featuring Japanese American girls that while integrating Japanese culture focused on universal issues. As my daughter and I often said, Japanese Americans can fall in love, struggle with friendships and family, get into trouble, and solve problems just like any other American child/teen.
While I wanted to share Japanese culture, I wanted Jasmine’s story to be universal. Jasmine wants to pound mochi, but she is driven because she wants to do something before her older sister does. This is something many younger siblings, no matter what their race or background can probably identify with.
I did make a conscious effort to dispel cultural and gender stereotypes. The idea for this story came from that – breaking family rules surrounding tradition and gender roles. Jasmine doesn’t want to be restricted by family rules (of mochi making) or gender, and she makes a plan to prove to her family she can do this. While some of her family members are reluctant to break tradition, ultimately she not only convinces them to let her try, but wins them over, because they love her.
I love Jasmine’s spunk, determination, and defiance. When you were growing up, was there something you weren’t allowed to do that especially frustrated or disappointed you? Were you as headstrong as Jasmine?
My family had a lot of rules and I was (and still am) a rule-follower. When I was in elementary school, I don’t recall being especially frustrated with the rules, at least not more than any other child having to follow parents’ rule. But there was one rule that embarrassed me. In our family home, like homes in Japan, we had to take our shoes off before entering the house. I didn’t mind so much for myself/our family, but I remember feeling embarrassed having to tell my Caucasian friends to take their shoes off.
When I went to my Caucasian friends’ homes, we kept our shoes on. When my Japanese American friends came over, it wasn’t an issue because they all took their shoes off without being asked. Today, I continue to remove my shoes at home, but I no longer feel any embarrassment asking people to do the same when they come over. And these days I think many families, not only Asian Americans, remove shoes in the house.
I think I’m headstrong, but I was not as brave or confident as Jasmine when it came to speaking up and trying new things. I wish I had been!
Did your family make mochi for New Year’s? What did you enjoy most about celebrating the holiday when you were little?
I wish! When my mom was growing up in Japan, she made mochi (rolling mochi with the women). I’ve always wanted to participate in mochi-tsuki (making mochi), especially the task of pounding the steamed rice. It looks like a lot of work, but also fun. It was great being able to live vicariously through Jasmine. I hope some day I will get to make mochi like Jasmine does in the book.
My favorite part of celebrating New Year’s was the big family gathering and the food. On New Year’s Day, relatives would come over or we’d go to a relative’s house, and we cousins would run amok, play games, and have fun until the food was put out.
We ate fried won tons, sushi and rice, fried chicken, soba (buckwheat noodles), potato salad, and mochi. We ate the mochi in a special soup for New Year’s called ozoni. When I was a child, I was not a fan of that soup. I preferred eating my mochi toasted and dipped in sugar.
Since moving across the country from my extended family, New Year’s Day is the holiday I miss celebrating the most. It just isn’t the same without a big family gathering and the delicious feast (and having my mom and aunts make it all LOL).
Can you briefly tell us what Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth, is about?
Jasmine Toguchi is excited to celebrate Girl’s Day with her best friend, Linnie Green. On March 3, families in Japan pray for good health and happiness for girls. Right before the big day, however, Jasmine and Linnie have a falling out and Linnie decides not to go to Jasmine’s house for the celebration. Jasmine’s big sister says she’s too mature to join in and Mom is not sure they should celebrate anymore. As all of her plans start to fall apart, Jasmine must use her sleuthing skills to figure out how to fix things and make sure the Girl’s Day celebration happens.
Anything else you’d like us to know about the first two books in the series?
I’m absolutely in love with the illustrations! Elizabet Vukovic has done an amazing job bringing Jasmine and her friends and family to life. She has so fabulously captured the essence of who Jasmine is. I love that now I can look at an illustration and easily recognize each and every one of the characters. What a joy to have my stories illustrated, and illustrated by such a talented artist. I’m so grateful!
How do you plan to promote the books?
I’m lucky to have a team at Macmillan leading the promotion. There’s a bookseller’s campaign called Got Character? — Jasmine Toguchi (Got Spunk?) is one of six series featured. There’s a poster and bookmarks and buttons. I haven’t yet seen one at a bookstore, but I’m hoping if anyone sees the campaign they’ll let me know.
There will be a print ad in the August issue of Girl’s World magazine, as well. So exciting! Also, there will be an online promotional campaign and book giveaway through Curious City this September when school is back in session. Other than that, I’m doing blog tours and several events. You can see my schedule here. I’m excited!
What’s next for you?
I’m working on copy edits of book 3, Jasmine Toguchi, Drummer Girl which is about Jasmine trying to figure out her talent for a school talent show (hint: taiko drums). That book will publish on April 3, 2018. And I’m working on revisions of book 4, Jasmine Toguchi, Flamingo Keeper, where Jasmine receives a wishing doll (daruma) from her grandma in Japan and wishes for a pet flamingo. Book 4 will release on July 20, 2018.
Thanks so much, Debbi, and heartfelt Congratulations on your new series. We love Jasmine!!
🍡 MOCHI MUNCHING 🍚
I don’t know about you, but all this talk about mochi has made me very hungry. I grew up loving mochi in all its forms and we did have it for New Year’s. My Uncle Joe and Aunty Gladys (who’s Japanese American) were in charge of mochi-making in our family. They didn’t pound the rice by hand but used a machine that made things much easier.
Just like with Jasmine’s family, my mother and aunts rolled and shaped the mochi, then wrapped it up in equal portions so each family could take some home. Good Luck for the coming year!
Lucky for us, Debbi has included a very easy microwave mochi recipe in the book that can be made in less than 15 minutes. It only calls for three ingredients — Mochiko (sweet rice flour), sugar, and water. Instead of rolling it into balls, you slice the cooked mochi into squares or rectangles. Munchkins will have fun making this recipe (with adult supervision, of course).
Mr. Cornelius and the Alphabet Soup kitchen helpers loved it — they didn’t even mind getting their paws a little sticky. Only problem is they went around saying “flamingos!” and “walnuts!” (Jasmine’s fave exclamation) for hours afterwards . . . 🙂
Be sure to try this soon — it’s pretty much a no-fail recipe. The hardest part is waiting for the mochi to cool so you can slice and eat it. 🙂
Microwave Mochi Recipe
- 1-1/2 cups mochiko (Japanese rice flour), plus a couple of handfuls
- 1 cup granulated white sugar
- 1-1/2 cups water
- cooking spray
- Mix 1-1/2 cups of mochiko with the sugar and water in a bowl until smooth.
- Spray microwavable pan with cooking spray.
- Pour mochiko mixture into pan.
- Microwave on high for 7-1/2 minutes until ingredients become a puffy dough-like mass (cooking times may vary).
- Dust cutting board with mochiko.
- With an adult’s help, remove hot pan from microwave. Flip pan over onto the mochiko-dusted cutting board. Cooked mochi should come out of the pan in one big square.
- Let mochi cool until you can safely handle it with your hands.
- Cut into small square pieces.
*You can eat mochi as is, or dip into sugar, cinnamon, and/or soy sauce for extra flavor. You can also toast it lightly in a toaster oven for a crisper outer shell.
**Wrap mochi loosely in wax paper and store at room temperature. Eat within two days.
Jama’s tip: Mochi is easier to slice if you use a plastic knife wrapped in plastic wrap.
~ from Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017), as posted at Jama’s Alphabet Soup.
JASMINE TOGUCHI, MOCHI QUEEN (Book 1)
written by Debbi Michiko Florence
illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic
published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux BYR, 2017
Chapter Book for ages 6-9, 128 pp.
*Junior Library Guild Selection
**Available in hardcover, paperback and eBook
**On shelves July 11, 2017
JASMINE TOGUCHI, SUPER SLEUTH (Book 2)
written by Debbi Michiko Florence
illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic
published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux BYR, 2017
Chapter Book for ages 6-9, 128 pp.
*Available in hardcover, paperback and eBook
**On shelves July 11, 2017
Debbi Michiko Florence is the author of two nonfiction books for children in the Kaleidoscope Kids Series, China and Japan, and the early reader chapter book series Dorothy and Toto. She is a third generation Japanese American, a native Californian, and many of her ideas for the Jasmine Toguchi series come from family experiences. Debbi currently lives in Connecticut with her husband, a puppy named Kiku, a bunny named Aki, and two ducks, Darcy and Lizzy. Find out more at her Official Website.
♥ Check out this video demonstrating the traditional way of making mochi:
Where: Bank Square Books, 53 W. Main Street, Mystic, CT
When: Saturday, July 15, 2017, 1 p.m.
Featuring: Reading, booksigning, crafts, mochi and cookies!
Unable to make it? Call the store at 860-536-3795 to order a signed copy!
*Interior spreads posted by permission of the publisher, illustrations copyright © 2017 Elizabet Vukovic, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux BYR. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2017 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.