Debbi Michiko Florence is the author of a picture book, the Jasmine Toguchi chapter book series, and the middle grade book Keep It Together, Keiko Carter among others. Her most recent release is the companion title to Keiko Carter, Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai. I read and reviewed it here (spoiler: I loved it!).
Today, Debbi and I chat about writing interesting dynamic characters, art, and bringing friendships to life on the page. I loved reading this interview and I know you’ll enjoy it as well.
Debbi is also giving away a copy of Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai along with a copy of Keep It Together, Keiko Carter to one reader! See how to enter at the end of this interview.
Interview with Debbi Michiko Florence
Hi Debbi! It’s so nice to finally be chatting with you. I love your books — especially the middle grade books. Keep It Together, Keiko Carter was such a breath of fresh air for me.
Thank you so much, Afoma! It is such an honor to be talking with you. I really appreciate all the support and love you give books and authors!
Why did you decide to write about Keiko’s friend Jenna?
My editor, Jenne, asked me if I was interested in writing a sequel to Keep It Together, Keiko Carter. I asked if I could write a companion novel instead, and my editor was 100% in. Jenna intrigued me because she was pretty much the exact opposite of people-pleasing Keiko who wore her heart on her sleeve. Jenna puts up walls, doesn’t like showing emotion, and can be blunt. I wanted to know Jenna’s story.
Jenna is quite different from Keiko, and even Keiko is in a bit of a different place than she was in the book that tells her story. What helps you create interesting, dynamic characters?
Thank you so much for such a wonderful compliment! As I write a story, the characters become more and more layered and real to me with every draft. I do many character development exercises between drafts, but I think the thing that most helps me get to know my characters is daydreaming. When I go running or am cleaning up after my pets (a dog, a rabbit, and a duck), I listen to a playlist I create for my work-in-progress. And then I let my mind wander, imagining what my character is thinking or feeling, allowing me to get into her head.I do many character development exercises between drafts, but I think the thing that most helps me get to know my characters is daydreaming. – @debbimichiko Click To Tweet
Like you, Jenna is a writer, although she likes to keep her writing pretty detached from her real life. She also stays away from expressing a lot of her hurt and feelings for most of the story. Why did you want to share the connection between writing, expression, and healing, especially for Jenna?
I’d love to be able to say that all of this was well-thought out and planned in advance. When I was writing Keiko’s story and populating her world, I knew she would have two best friends, and I knew she would be torn between them. When I create characters, I want them to be distinct with passions of their own. I just happened to make Jenna a writer who wanted to be a journalist. When it came time to write her story years after I first drafted Keiko’s story, I was kind of stuck with that tidbit of Jenna the Journalist. But the more I delved into her history and her reason for putting up walls, the more her love for writing facts made sense. Once I figured out that she focused on writing investigative articles partly because she wanted to avoid feeling her feelings, the puzzle pieces started to fall into place. I knew that pushing her to write about her feelings and personal experiences would be something she balked at, and that would be an important part of her growth.
I really liked Rin Wantanabe, his artistic skill, and his character’s narrative arc. Both he and Jenna are artists. Do you draw or do any kind of fine arts?
Thank you! I’m so happy to hear you liked Rin! When I was in high school, I took an art class. The art teacher displayed one of my drawings and my mom has one of my paintings from that class framed. But other than that, I haven’t spent any time learning or practicing fine arts. My late father was very good at drawing and my daughter, Caitlin, is a talented artist who has a degree in industrial design. In the book, you might recall there is a Caitlin in Jenna’s newspaper club who is an artist.
Keiko and Jenna’s friendship is sweet as always, and Keiko does her best to support Jenna, even when she stubbornly refuses sometimes. What is your favorite thing about writing friendships?
Friendships fascinate me. Even as an adult, I still experience the ups and downs of changing friendships, deal with misunderstandings or disagreements, and enjoy the true joy of the love and support that comes from close relationships. I explore friendships in my books because I’m still learning about them – what makes them work, why they sometimes fall apart, and the “specialness” of those really close friendships. I could not survive without my friends.Friendships fascinate me. Even as an adult, I still experience the ups and downs of changing friendships, deal with misunderstandings or disagreements, and enjoy the … love and support that comes from close relationships. -… Click To Tweet
Jenna’s family is a major source of her emotional turmoil, with her parents’ separation. I loved the way you explored that topic and gave Jenna a voice to articulate her needs. What did you hope to achieve by depicting what is now a common circumstance for many tweens?
Both my husband and I were previously married, and we both have children (now grown) from those marriages. I saw first-hand how divorce can affect children. Not every kid reacts or copes in the same way. A lot of that can depend on the age of the child and how the parents behave. The two biggest things I wanted readers to know is that they are not alone in their feelings and that the divorce/their parents’ behavior is not their fault or responsibility. Parents are human and they get caught up in their own emotions and lives, and they can mess up.
A lot of Jenna’s story happens in the cute Leigh’s Stage Diner with tasty fries, musicals, and ingenious milkshakes. Was it inspired by a real diner?
The idea of a diner was based on some I’d been to, but the specifics of it (the Broadway musical theme) was all made up. I think I may have had Broadway musical posters referenced as decorations in the first draft, but it was my awesome editor’s idea to expand on that and turn it into a Broadway show themed diner with menu items and tables named for musicals. I love working with Jenne! We have fun brainstorming sessions and I love our give-and-takes when it comes to revision.
Side note: The diner is named after a very dear friend’s (the book is dedicated to her) daughter. And it just so happened that real-life Leigh loves Broadway musicals. She and my editor both helped come up with the clever names for the menu items.
Which middle grade and YA books have you read and loved recently?
Oh, that’s such a tough question because I read and love so many books! Off the top of my head in no particular order, some middle grade books I’ve loved recently are The Many Meanings of Meilan by Andrea Wang, Not All Heroes by Josephine Cameron, Turning Point by Paula Chase, and Rescue by Jennifer A Nielsen. YA books: Hot British Boyfriend by Kristy Boyce, Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Jay’s Gay Agenda by Jason June, and K-Pop Confidential by Stephan Lee. I love everything by Maurene Goo, Misa Sugiura, and Stacey Lee. I could go on – there are many other books I have loved. But I’ll stop here before this becomes a never-ending list!
You’ve written for picture book, chapter book and middle grade audiences so far. Which age group would you say you enjoy writing for the most? And would you ever want to try YA?
Another tough question! My heart is definitely with middle grade because I get to write about the two things I love – friendship and first crushes/romance. Also, my strongest emotional memories are from middle school. But I love to write chapter books as well. Chapter book characters and their stories are so much fun to write – and they give me the opportunity to visit elementary schools. And yes, I think someday I would love to write YA!
Speaking of which, can you share anything about what you’re currently working on?
So. Many. Things! Two of the projects will be announced very soon so I can’t talk about those yet, but I am working on copyedits of my next middle grade novel coming out in 2022. I am SO excited about this one. Sweet and Sour poured out of me during the pandemic. I think it was my escape to be able to inhabit these characters and their lives. Sweet and Sour is about friendship, crushes, & betrayal. I am not very good at describing my books so here is my brilliant editor’s copy:
Revenge is sweet!
For as long as she can remember, Mai has spent every summer in Mystic, Connecticut visiting family friends. And hanging out with her best-friend-since-birth, Zach Koyama, was always the best part.
Then two summers ago everything changed. Zach humiliated Mai, proving he wasn’t a friend at all. So when Zach’s family moved to Japan, Mai felt relieved. No more summers together. No more heartache.
But this year, the Koyamas have returned and the family vacation is back on. And if Mai has to spend the summer around Zach, the least she can do is wipe away the memory of his betrayal…by coming up with the perfect plan for revenge!
Only Zach isn’t the boy he used to be, and Mai’s memories of their last fateful summer aren’t the whole truth of what happened between them. But how can she forgive Zach for a betrayal she’ll never forget?
Thanks so much for your time, Debbi!
Thank you, Afoma!
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Buy Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai
Meet Debbie Michiko Florence
Debbi Michiko Florence is the author of middle-grade novels Keep It Together, Keiko Carter, a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection and New England Book Award finalist and Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai, starred review from Kirkus and a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. She is also the author of three chapter books series including Jasmine Toguchi (JLG selections, the Amelia Bloomer and CCBC Choices lists, and a Cybils Award winner) and co-authored a picture book biography, Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites which received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.
A former classroom teacher, Debbi has spoken on panels at conferences and book festivals, taught writing workshops for children and adults, and loves doing author visits at schools and libraries. She is on the faculty of The Highlights Foundation.
Before becoming a full-time writer, Debbi was a raptor rehabilitator, outdoor educator, and a zoo educator. A third-generation Japanese American, born and raised in California, Debbi now lives in Connecticut with her husband, rescue dog, bunny, and duck where she writes in her studio, The Word Nest. She enjoys running and hiking, and loves to travel with her husband and daughter. Her favorite foods are sushi, ramen, and chocolate. Visit Debbie’s website, Instagram and Twitter to connect with her and learn more about her books.