Tuesday, January 26, 2021

While I Was Away

Brown, Waka. While I Was Away
January 26th 2021 by Quill Tree Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

In this memoir, Waka's family has moved to the US from Japan, and although she was born in the US, her father is always saying that they will move back in three years. She has visited several times, since relatives still live there, but she is very much a 1980s American kid. Her parents, however, feel that her Japanese isn't as good as it should be, so they arrange for her to spend five months living with her grandmother and going to school in Japan. She's been to school there before, briefly, so had made a few friends, but had attended an American school. Now, she will be going to a local one, so she will have to improve her Japanese. She's disappointed that she won't get to spend the summer with her friends, although they promise to write. When she first arrives, she stays with her aunt, uncle, and cousins, and very much enjoys being with them in their bustling household. When she moves in with her grandmother, who is 80, she has to deal with her grandmother's silence and strict rules. The grandmother's life has not been easy; her husband died, and she had to raise nine children during the war on a seamstress' salary. Waka spends little time at home anyway, and is quickly drawn into the drama of middle school. The girls are nice to her, giving her small charms for her backpack because she doesn't have any, but the boys called her "baka" (stupid) because she doesn't read well, and "gaijin" (foreigner). Her teacher is very understanding, protecting her from the students and giving her a lot of help and encouragement. The girls start to demand that Waka pick a "guruupu". She can't just play with everyone at recess or walk home with a friend from another class; she needs to pick a group of girls and hang out exclusively with them. The girls give her some time to decide, and help her navigate the sometimes difficult waters of Japanese social customs, such as attaching -san or -chan to someone's name. (But never to your own!) Used to being considered "a brain" in the US, Waka is determined to figure out writing with kanji, reading, and improving her conversational skills. She bonds slowly with her grandmother, hearing bits about the past and learning to sew. When her time in Japan is over, she is sad to leave, but feels that she learned a lot about her culture, her family's past, and her grandmother. 
Strengths: This was a brilliant combination of the familiar and the unusual. Waka has to struggle with drama similar to that which she would face in the US, but with added layers of cultural differences unique to Japan. She has to deal with academic work that is harder than it has been in the past while being considered a foreigner. Living away from home is always difficult, and her grandmother is different from the grandmothers she has experienced in the US. I love that letters are included, and that the process of sending and getting them is described. This was an integral part of being out of the country in the 1980s, and readers today will not understand the importance of a 30 cent aerogram or a care package of Twix! I was not surprised to read that the author based this book on some journals and letters she had from her trip. This has lots of good details, and some very true middle grade emotions!
Weaknesses: The cover should have included some 1980s pop culture or that the very least, some bright colors of geometric designs. Maybe a back pack with those charms! Hello Kitty was a HUGE thing in the 1980s. 
What I really think: Definitely purchasing, and looking forward to recommending this to students who want to learn more about living in a different country. Chapman's All the Ways Home has been a steady circulator, so I am very excited about this memoir!
Ms. Yingling

1 comment:

  1. This one sounds excellent. I'd heard of it before, but I somehow didn't realize it was set in the 1980's. Now I really want to read it! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Great review!