WHILE I WAS AWAY (Cybils 2021)

In 1984, twelve-year-old Waka is sent from her home in Kansas to live with her Obassama (her grandmother) in Tokyo for five months when her immigrant parents feel her Japanese isn’t good enough. Fortunately for us, her experiences are beautifully captured in her memoir WHILE I WAS AWAY, which is another fabulous Cybils nominee for this year.

Ripped from her end-of-elementary-school festivities and summer plans, Waka goes from “shrimpy brain” in Kansas to “Waka Baka” (“baka” means “dummy” in Japanese) the big “dumb” jock in Tokyo.

She navigates her identity shift better than most preteens would (with just enough endearing awkwardness) to grow confident and comfortable enough in her own skin no matter what lens is being used to view her. Brown’s gentle message of self-love is the Girl Power boost we didn’t know we badly needed.

Loved

  • Packed with timelessly fun references to the colorful train wreck that was mid-80s pop culture and middle class couture.
  • Great explanation of Waka’s process in learning the Japanese alphabet (in a way that is both interesting and accessible to this Anglophone who learns differently).
  • Brown accurately captures both the awkward zeitgeist and roller coaster feelings of being an exchange student (my experience); the feeling of being the child of an immigrant caught between two cultures (my nine-year-old daughter’s experience); and the larger-than-life girl drama of the preteen years.
  • Waka’s observations about Americans’ misinterpretation of Japanese culture (and the reverse), lay the groundwork of empathizing with people of different cultural backgrounds for young readers who many not have had this exposure.
  • Waka is wise beyond her years, with an uncanny ability to see the true nature of situations and people. Through Waka’s reflections about her friends and Obassama, middle grade readers will likely have some healthy takeaways about their own relationships.

Caveat

  • Obassama (Waka’s grandmother) is not the kindest woman after having a hard life, and the main character recognizes her as such. She locks Waka out of the house one night; pressures her into getting an ugly haircut, etc. As happens so often with troubled relatives, the two don’t really ever make peace.

Verdict

WHILE I WAS AWAY is a must-read for any first-generation immigrant child (and 80s lover, Japan lover, etc) and a couple of literary awards waiting to happen.

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