I had the great pleasure to interview Aggie alum Debbi Michiko Florence. She majored in Zoology during her time at UC Davis, but went on to become a writer of children’s books! In addition to an early reader chapter book series, Dorothy & Toto, with Capstone Publishing, Debbi has another series coming out this year called Jasmine Toguchi. The first book, JASMINE TOGUCHI, MOCHI QUEEN, hits shelves this summer. I reached out to Debbi to talk about her books, the path to publishing, and ducks!
Photo Credits: Roy Thomas
What was your experience at UC Davis like? How do you think that prepared you (or didn't!) for your current writing career?
I majored in Zoology and minored in English. I’ll spare you the reasons behind that choice, but there were signs that I should have majored in English. I took a creative writing class my freshman year and absolutely loved it. The teacher once kept me after class and suggested that I submit my stories to journals for publication. I was flattered, but I never followed up on that. Then the next year, an English professor wrote me a letter and sent it to my house over the summer telling me he thought I was in the wrong major and that I should switch to English. Again, I was flattered, but didn’t take his advice. I graduated and went on to get my teaching certificate, first teaching 5th grade in Los Angeles, but then finally landing my dream job as an Associate Curator of Education at the Detroit Zoo. It wasn’t until I married my husband, Bob, and moved to Mexico City for his job that I started to think about writing as a career. I’d kept writing all along, but never with serious intention of getting published. While my coursework as an undergrad didn’t directly prepare me for my writing career, the English professors and the classes I took invigorated and inspired me. Plus I read widely. Reading is probably one of the best things one can do to prepare for a writing career. Everything I did and experienced up till now feeds my writing soul, so I have no regrets for the circuitous path I took to get here.
How did you get started in writing? Why children's books?
I’m going to assume you mean how did I start my writing career, because I’ve been writing stories since I could hold a pencil in my hand. While living in Mexico City, I started out writing travel articles for a travel web zine. I didn’t get paid, but I gained valuable experience with deadlines and working with an editor. I also wrote a couple of short stories that were accepted for publication in small literary journals. It was then that I decided that I really wanted to pursue a writing career.
My strongest emotional memories of reading are from when I was a child through teenager. Many of my favorite books were children’s books—Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, The Outsiders by S.E.Hinton, the witch books by Ruth Chew, and everything by Judy Blume. Writing for kids and teens is my passion and my joy. And I think my internal age vacillates somewhere between 10-15 years old. Additionally, I love reading current books for children and teens. Those books truly inspire me.
Let's talk books! What was your journey to publication like? How has your experience been different writing work-for-hire as opposed to working independently? Fiction vs. nonfiction?
I’m over-the-moon excited and thrilled about my upcoming chapter book series, Jasmine Toguchi. While it’s been a long journey to get here, I wouldn’t have it any other way, because Jasmine and I have landed with the perfect editor and house. I have loved writing this series!
I first wrote Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen in 2010, and after sharing with my trusted critique partners and after many revisions and quite a few rejections, I got that one “YES” from Grace Kendall at FSG in the spring of 2015! I’d written Mochi Queen as a stand-alone, but was asked if I would be willing to write three more books for a series. Yes, yes, and yes! I had tight deadlines, but fortunately I work best with deadlines. Even better, I learned that Grace and I work fabulously as a team. Her suggestions are always spot-on. She gets me as a writer and she gets Jasmine as a character. Having an editor who understands me like that is a dream come true. Grace makes me a better writer.
I’ve talked about my long journey to fiction publication on my blog. I feel lucky to have had two nonfiction books for children published, one on China and one on Japan. While writing both books were great experiences, writing nonfiction felt more like work, while writing fiction feels like joy, if that makes sense. BOTH require hard work, dedication, and focus, for sure, but I prefer writing fiction, it’s where my heart is. My favorite part of working on the nonfiction books was coming up with activities for the kids to do. When I worked at the zoo, one of my responsibilities was running the summer program for kids, and coming up with activities and crafts to teach kids about wildlife and conservation. I get to keep doing that in the Jasmine books—there is an activity at the end of each book. I also have a monthly newsletter for parents, teachers, and librarians that includes an activity or craft.
As for my work-for-hire books, the early reader series Dorothy & Toto with Capstone, I had a very positive experience. My editor pretty much gave me free rein with the stories. I, of course, had to keep to the Wizard of Oz storyline and characters, and Warner Brothers had to approve everything I wrote, but I encountered no resistance. It was a lot of fun to write these stories. One of the big differences between work-for-hire and my own fiction is that with the work-for-hire, the publisher has the final say on the stories and my editor did write/re-write a few things, but I was kept in the loop. With Jasmine, not only do I have creative control over everything, the characters and the plot, I have the final say on what happens in the stories and am involved in each and every step of the process. That being said, as I mentioned above, Grace and I work very well together as a team.
Tell us more about your upcoming book, JASMINE TOGUCHI, MOCHI QUEEN, which sounds adorable. What inspired you to write this book and series?
I’m so excited about Jasmine and her stories! The first two books of the series, Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen and Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth are coming out on July 11, 2017.
From the flap copy: Eight-year-old Jasmine Toguchi is a flamingo fan, tree climber, and top-notch mess-maker! In Mochi Queen, Jasmine is tired of her big sister, Sophie, always getting to do things first. For once, Jasmine wishes SHE could do something before Sophie—something special, something different. The New Year approaches, and as the Toguchi family gathers in Los Angeles to celebrate, Jasmine is jealous that her sister gets to help roll mochi balls by hand with the women. Her mom says that Jasmine is still too young to join in, so she hatches a plan to help the men pound the mochi rice instead. Surely her sister has never done THAT before. But pounding mochi is traditionally reserved for boys. And the mochi hammer is heavier than it looks. Can Jasmine build her case and her mochi-making muscles in time for New Year’s Day?
I first got the idea for Mochi Queen after reading a newspaper article about a multi-generational Japanese-American family that got together every New Year’s Day to make mochi in the traditional way. I was fascinated and couldn’t stop thinking about what a wonderful family tradition that must be. And then my story-telling mind wouldn’t let go. Jasmine, my 8-year-old protagonist, popped into my head soon after and demanded that I tell her story of wanting to make mochi with her family.
As a third generation Japanese-American who was born in San Francisco and raised in Los Angeles, I was excited to write a contemporary story starring a Japanese-American main character.
What advice would you give any students who might be interested in writing or becoming writers?
Read, read, read! Read whatever genre you’re most interested in, but also read outside your genre. Also, read craft books. And inspirational books, because writing for publication is can be a long, rough road. I re-read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and On Writing by Stephen King over and over to get me through the hard times. I recently read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and will be adding it to my rotation of inspirational and motivational reads.
And of course, write, write, write! Many drafts and many stories. Get feedback from trusted sources—finding the right writing/critique partners can take some time, but it makes all the difference in making you a better writer. The right writing partner is someone you trust, respect, and admire. The right writing partner understands what you’re trying to do with your writing and gives you feedback to help get you there (rather than trying to rewrite your story into the kind of story he/she would write). You, as the writer, have to be open to hearing feedback, to trying things that might not be within your comfort zone, to accepting that sometimes what you intend isn’t getting across to the reader.
Try to find an organization that can help you learn about your field. I joined SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) the day I decided to pursue writing for children. Through SCBWI and by attending workshops and conferences, I learned about the craft and the business, I made lifelong friends, and found my critique partners.
What other projects do you have in store?
I’m currently working on revisions with my editor for Jasmine Toguchi books 3 and 4. Also, I’m revising a novel for teens for my agent. Early next year, I hope to start on a brand new project, a chapter book loosely based on my years working at a zoo.
Any fun facts about you?
I’ve always loved animals and, in particular, birds. I had a parakeet, a cockatiel, a finch, and an Amazon parrot in my youth. When I was an undergrad at UC Davis, I volunteered at the Raptor Rehabilitation Center for three years. I helped rehabilitate injured and orphaned hawks, owls, and eagles, and I went to classrooms to educate students about wildlife and conservation. Today, I have two ducks, named Darcy and Lizzy (can you guess that I love Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen?) Darcy is a Pekin duck and Lizzy is an Indian Runner duck and I adore them. They follow commands like “go home,” “drink water,” and “get out of the raspberry bushes!” They always come running when I shout, “Cookies!” Cookies, for them, mean freeze-dried mealworms or frozen peas. They love their treats! In keeping with my love for birds, I call my writing studio that overlooks a pond where ducks, herons, and egrets hang out, The Word Nest. (And I have to add that I’m a total dog person!)
Thank you so much for interviewing me!
To learn more about Debbi Michiko Florence and her books, visit her website at www.debbimichikoflorence.com!