Review of the Day: While I Was Away by Waka T. Brown
Memory is unreliable. On some level we all know this to be true. Two people can live through the same experience and have two entirely different interpretations of what happened at the time. So when we run across memoirs written with young readers in mind, we have to take them with a grain of salt. Now I’m a bit of a nonfiction stickler when it comes to children’s books. If I see a picture book on a historical figure and there’s even a hint of fake dialogue, I got into full-on evil librarian mode. But memoirs? I dunno. That’s where you get into a strange gray area. I mean, if you consider that any picture book that looks at history is going to be inherently inaccurate because of its illustrations, then can’t you say that any personal memoir is going to be inherently inaccurate because it’s based so heavily on the author’s own fragile, flippant memories? Seen in that light, the fake dialogue doesn’t seem so bad. Besides, it’s hard to hold anything against Waka T. Brown’s While I Was Away. A historical piece (because apparently 1984 is distant history now), Waka fills her book with all the pathos, yearning, frustrations, and humor you might find in a middle grade novel. The important difference? It’s all true. It’s all real. It’s all enthralling.
Who knew ignoring your mom could have such dire consequences? When Waka ignores her mom’s request in Japanese to fold the laundry, she inadvertently convinces her parents that she’s losing her ability to speak Japanese. Now Mom and Dad have instituted (what she calls) “Plan Ruin Waka’s Life”. Instead of having a peaceful summer with her friends, Waka’s being shipped off to Japan to attend school all summer. Even scarier? She’ll be staying with grandmother, her Obaasama, a woman that all her relatives seem to fear. Usually the top of her class, Waka quickly discovers she’s now traded in her old brainiac identity for a new one: dumb jock. Can she survive five months learning kanji, dealing with new friends (and their dramas), and getting to know Obaasama? She’ll have to. It’s 1984 and like it or not, Waka’s about to have the experience of a lifetime.
Each author of children’s books harbors a superpower. They have an ability to do some particular aspect of writing for kids particularly well. Some can conjure particularly memorable characters. Some pull at your heartstrings in the very first chapter. And Waka T. Brown? Her secret writing superpower appears to be an unparalleled ability to channel indignation. Is there any feeling more potent than of feeling that you’re being treated unfairly? Waka pretty much feels that way from chapter one onward, and it’s heady. They say a writer should tap into what they know, and clearly this particular author’s internal 12-year-old self is alive, well, with a well tended sense of indignation burning like a hot little coal in her heart. This isn’t cringe comedy. It’s good old-fashioned unfairness. In other words, memoir gold!
The older I get, the less patience I have with children’s books that are boring. I mean, a kid will tell you right from the start that they won’t read a boring book. Adults have a much lower boredom tolerance. I know I used to. But now that I’m getting older and crankier, I’m finding that I want my kids books to eschew boring build ups and dull descriptions. As such, I have developed an incredible respect for any author that knows how to cut through the treacle (if you know what I mean). And Waka T. Brown? A first class treacle-cutter. Just look at that beautiful first chapter. We meet our heroine. We are introduced to her problem (and more than a chunk of her personality) within a mere THREE pages! By the end of chapter two she’s walking to the flight attendant. It’s marvelous! As if all the superfluous details were edited out long ago leaving only a tight, sweet title.
And, of course, this is a work of history. The whole story takes place during the summer of 1984, as evidenced by the Summer Olympics. We’re getting to the point where we’re seeing more and more 80s history in our children’s books, particularly personal memoirs. Eugene Yelchin, for example, penned The Genius Under the Table which is a very different early 80s story about his childhood. In Waka’s case, I was fascinated by the degree to which she makes the time period known. Interestingly, she doesn’t make nostalgia do the bulk of the heavy lifting in terms of plot and place. The time period is there but it’s sprinkled into the narrative (like an off-handed mention of grape-flavored Laffy Taffy) never dominating the text. Some memoirs like to swim in the past, never relenting, desperately afraid that readers are going to forget that the book in their hands doesn’t take place today. Waka’s book in contrast is cool, collected, and at ease with itself.
I had the pleasure of listening to this book as an audio book, and I can tell you that there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to going this route. The advantage is that reader Chieko Hidaka never leaves you in doubt when it comes to Japanese text and pronunciations. Her read is smooth and clear from start to finish. The disadvantage then is that you never get to see the visuals, which come up surprisingly often in the physical book. There’s a jokey piece of art sent in the mail from her siblings. There’s a beautiful example of Waka’s more accomplished calligraphy. Coded messages. And, of course, the kanji, bane of young Waka’s life. One thing that impressed me listening to the book was how easy it was for me to distinguish between all the characters. Waka fills the book with people on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, and yet I almost never had to wonder whom one person or another was.
I’d probably be amiss if I didn’t delve just a little bit into Waka’s ability to tap into the essential complexity of the book’s most fascinating character: Obaasama. Waka lures you into a false sense of security with her grandmother. After the first few chapters you’d be forgiven for thinking, “Ah. I’ve read this before. This is one of those books where the grandma is supposed to be scary but has a heart of gold and isn’t frightening at all by the end. Like the grandfather in Heidi or something.” So that when that familiar through line turns out to be very wrong, you feel just as stunned and betrayed as Waka. Obaasama’s trauma still informs her life, and like a child, you see only the merest glimpse of it. This isn’t a book of types. It’s a book of real people. Real problems and all.
For books that pair particularly well with this one, consider getting your hands on Diary of a Tokyo Teen: A Japanese-American Girl Travels to the Land of Trendy Fashion, High-Tech Toilets and Maid Cafes (formerly Halfway Home) by Christine Mari Inzer. Though touted as YA, it’s not that much more mature than Waka’s experiences, and offers a fun glimpse at how Japan changed in the intervening twenty years since While I Was Away took place. More to the point, it speaks to that “halfway home” feeling of leaving part of your heart in your other home, whether it’s Japan or America. Waka talks a little about that feeling, but in the grand spirit of “show don’t tell” this book is a better testament. Smart and funny, it has the easygoing feel of a novel, with enough information and specifics to plant it firmly in a specific date and time. As good for children with some working knowledge of Japan as it is for kids who know next to nothing about the country. A thorough delight.
On shelves now.
Source: Checked out library copy for review.
In case you’d care to hear Waka read a bit of the book herself, you can find that here:
Or, if you prefer, you can watch this rather adorable kid review:
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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