"Keep It Together, Keiko Carter" earns Mystic author award nomination
Keiko Carter believes this — her seventh-grade year — will be the best ever for anyone at any time. And why not? With her best friends Audrey and Jenna, Keiko will launch into middle school and that blossoming stretch of life when friendship is forever and anything is possible. That includes a first dance, long anticipated crushes/kisses that become reality, and that initial giddy step up the path that means you're not just a kid anymore.
Forty years from now, Keiko will probably still feel just as tenderly about all this — although the nostalgia will be faintly daubed with a bittersweet patina suggesting Life isn't always what you planned or hoped for.
Of course, it's also true Keiko is a fictional character, one developed with aching affection and insight by Mystic author Debbie Michiko Florence, known in children's literature for her popular Jasmine Toguchi chapter books. In Florence's fluidly capable words, Keiko, Jenna and Audrey come to life in "Keep It Together, Keiko Carter," published in May by Scholastic Books and nominated last week as a finalist in the Best Middle Grade Novel category of the New England Book Awards.
Other nominees are: "From the Desk of Zoe Washington" by Janae Marks; "Chirp: by Kate Messner;
"Black Brother, Black Brother" by Jewell Parker Rhodes; and "Show Me A Sign" by Ann Clare LeZotte. The awards are presented annually by the New England Independent Booksellers Association, and winners recieve $250 for literacy donated to the charity of their choice.
"Nostalgia was definitely a part of writing the book, and I wrote it thinking about middle school and how friendships start to change," says Florence, 55, speaking by phone from the home she shares in Mystic with her husband, a rescue dog, a rabbit and two ducks. They also have a 25-year-old daughter who lives in San Diego. "Everything changes. You go from elementary school, where family is everything, and you look forward to so much because you're also changing and you feel mature and grown up — and you're not. The middle-grade years stand out as the time when all these things are connected to the biggest emotions, too. I wanted to re-visit that and I thought, 'It's not going to be easy, but I can get back there.'"
As school starts, the three friends are back together after having endured the first uncertainty of their long friendships; Jenna spent much of the summer with her divorced father. But tensions between Jenna and Audrey start to surface. Keiko wanted to restore the magic in time for a triple date to the Fall Ball — but when Audrey and Jenna both set their eyes on the same boy, loyalty that once seemed eternal stats to show seismic faults. Plus, Keiko has her own crush, who seems unaware of her presence and, without the advise and "we're going through this together" spirit from her besties to help her navigate, seventh grade's magical promise becomes something very different. Throw in a distracted mom, a friend's (maybe not so) pesky older brother, and the idea of a rescue dog, and there's plenty for Keiko to figure out.
If the New England Book Awards nomination is validation for Florence's talent and belief in herself, it's worth noting that "Keiko Carter" is actually her fourth MG manuscript — but only the first to get published.
"I started out writing novels for teenagers and that's where my original heart was," Florence says. "Again, there's so much going on at that age in terms of internal emotions and, as an adult writer, I wanted to explore that. But there was a big learning curve. I kept getting rejection letters saying the voice I was writing in was too young." She laughs. "I'm stubborn and resisted, but I finally figured out they were right."
She also did plenty of prepatory homework. "I read a lot anyway, but I think that, if you're going to write a certain type of novel, you probably need to read about 100 in that genre before you start," she says.
Florence doesn't work from an outline. She has a premise and characters and a vague idea of the ending so that she knows the direction of the story. The rest unfolds as she writes, which can be exhilarating to watch her characters come to development. It's also true that, as she says, "I've had characters hijack a story. In an earlier manuscript, I had a minor character who owned a diner — and suddenly I'd written four chapters about the diner owner. I said, 'What are you doing, honey? This book is not about you!' Sometimes I'll take a minor character that I like aside and tell them, 'Maybe you'll get a book later.'"
Who does this remind me of?
As she worked on "Keep It Together, Keiko Carter" and Florence tweaked the narrative and sculpted her characters, she grew fascinated by the nuances of her heroine. "Keiko is really interesting because she's such a people-pleaser," Florence says. "She wants everyone to get along and she'll push her own wants and needs aside to make that happen. Finally, after many drafts, my editor said, 'You know what? Keiko is YOU.' And she was right. By that time, the book was done. I'd thought I knew Keiko really well as the writer, but now I knew WHY."
Another aspect of that awareness is that, like Florence, Keiko is Japanese American. "When I was growing up," Florence says, "I loved to read books about friendships and first crushes. But none of the characters ever looked like me. I grew up in Los Angeles in a community with a lot of Japanese Americans, so I never felt like an outsider, but all the same...
"By the time my daughter was old enough (to start reading similar books), she had more choices (in terms of ethnic characters). But I decided I wanted to write those stories and I wanted to write about Japanese American characters and the Japanese American experience. That aspect is crucial to Keiko's story and I'm thrilled to have this opportunity."
Florence alludes to the Cooperative Children's Book Center, a research library of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that compiles statistics on books published for children and young adults. The data include trends and figures on diversity in children's publishing — both in terms of characters and writers and, in recent years, those numbers have started to rise.
"It's been slow but it's happening," Florence says. "For years, there were more children's books published about inanimate objects and animals than there were with indigenous, Asian, Black, Latinx or other own voices groups. Now, with the explosion in the Black Lives Matter movement, you can look at the New York Times bestseller lists and see a trend in diversity."
Last week, Florence finished the final copy edits on her next novel, which is a sequel of sorts. The folks at Scholastic asked Florence for a follow up and the idea came up to focus this time on Jenna — one of Keiko's best friends.
"The question was," Florence says, "if I was Keiko, how will Jenna develop? And the thing about Jenna is that she keeps her feelings very close and isn't very expressive about a lot of things. And that's a little me, too."
Meanwhile, publicizing and promoting "Keep It Together, Keiko Carter" is an ongoing adventure in the times of COVID-19. Florence was scheduled for a launch party in May at Bank Square Books in Mystic, followed by tour dates and appearances and festivals and trade shows.
"We've made the best of it," Florence says. "We cancelled the live event and instead Bank Square did just an amazing job with a virtual launch. We sold books in advance and that entered readers in a raffle. I made a gift basket for the winner and it ended up being a lot of fun and very successful. I think we sold 75-80 books, and that would have been a good total at a live event."
With friends and fellow middle grade authors Christina Soontornvat and Supriya Kelkar, Florence ao celebrated the book with an online "Chocolate Challenge," playing on the candy's recurrent theme in "Keiko Carter."
"We couldn't have done that otherwise because they live out of state, so we ended up doing some things we otherwise might not have thought of," Florence says. "So we're doing more and more virtual stuff and it's nice to chat with readers and teachers and other authors. I can't quantify sales yet, but it's fun to try to be creative and meet people that way."
As per virus restrictions, the New England Book Awards ceremony will also be online, tentatively scheduled for September 23, on the New England Independent Booksellers Association's Zoom account.
"I have to admit to you, I'm blown away," Florence says. "Obviously, I care very much about my book but that other people feel that way? I mean, I've read the other books nominated and it's humbling and very exciting to be part of that group."
Debbi Michiko Florence recommends
Middle grade author Debbi Michiko Florence discusses books that had a big influence on her own writing.
1. "Growing up, I loved all of Judy Blume's books — contemporary stories dealing with all the complications and challenges of growing up, friendships, and relationships. My favorites are 'Deenie' and 'Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.'"
2. "When I started writing with an eye toward publication, I was and am still grateful for Asian American authors who paved the way with contemporary books for young people starring Asian American main characters such as 'Millicent Min, Girl Genius' by Lisa Yee and 'Project Mulberry' by Linda Sue Park.
3. "Another book that greatly influenced me at that time was 'Rain Is Not My Indian Name' by Cynthia Leitich Smith."
For more information on Debbi Michiko Florence go to www.debbimichikoflorence.com.