Character is crucial to all storytelling. How do you approach creating characters for chapter books, and how does this process compare to creating characters for other forms?
I don’t do anything vastly different when developing characters for my chapter books versus middle grade. For me, getting to know my characters is similar to getting to know a new friend. I listen, I observe, I ask questions. For a character, that means writing scenes and journal entries from her point of view, getting to know her family and friends, making lists of her likes/dislikes/personality traits. I do a lot of “daydreaming” at this stage, imagining what the character is doing or thinking of feeling at any given moment.
What does your lived experience and perspective bring to your story?
For the Jasmine Toguchi series, illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), while Jasmine is not me (in personality she is much more like my daughter was at that age), some of her experiences come from my own. This, I hope, deepened the story and allowed Japanese American readers to see themselves in a book in a way I never got to when I was growing up. For example, the way Jasmine and her family celebrate Girl’s Day in Super Sleuth is exactly the way I celebrated at home when I was a child.
If you write a series, what is your approach?
I talk about this in my Writing Chapter Book Series workshop. One of the things I like to do is make sure the main character has a personality trait or two or three that carries over through the series. Not only does this give unique personality traits to the character, but it also helps the newly independent reader feel successful. For example, anytime Jasmine is excited, she says, “Wowee zowee!” So, the reader expects and anticipates it in all the books.
What advice do you have for others interested in writing chapter books?
Read a lot of chapter books. I think I read over 50 before I sat down to write Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen back in 2010. I focused on the type of chapter book I wanted to write and studied those books, chapter by chapter, scene by scene to learn about plotting and character development. For the record, my mentor texts included Marty McGuire by Kate Messner, illustrated by Brian Floca (Scholastic, 2011) and Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Chronicle, 2007).
What’s next on the horizon for you?
I’m currently working on the next quartet of the Jasmine Toguchi series, once again fabulously illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic, where Jasmine and her family go to Japan on vacation. The places Jasmine visits and some of the experiences she has in these books are based on my own memories. The first book is Jasmine Toguchi Brave Explorer (set in Tokyo), coming out with Farrar, Straus and Giroux on Sept. 27, 2022. The next three release in 2023. I’m so thrilled to be back in Jasmine’s world!
I also have a new middle grade novel, Sweet and Sour, coming out with Scholastic in July 2022!
Debbi Michiko Florence is the author of middle grade novels Keep It Together, Keiko Carter (Scholastic, 2020), a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection and New England Book Award finalist, and Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai (Scholastic, 2021). Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review. It was named an Amazon Best Books, and a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. Her newest middle grade Sweet and Sour will be published with Scholastic in July 2022.
She is also the author of three chapter books series, including Jasmine Toguchi (JLG selections, the ALA Amelia Bloomer List 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 (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2022), which received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist.
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, and bunny where she writes in her studio, The Word Nest. She loves to travel with her husband and daughter.
Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency. Connect with her at stephanimartinelleaton.com.