Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen – Debbi Michiko Florence and Elizabet Vuković, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017
Eight-year-old Jasmine Toguchi has a “thinking spot” where she goes when she needs to contemplate what to do. Fortunately, girls in middle-grade series fiction now do quite a lot of thinking and quite a lot of acting on their own behalf, and on behalf of others, too. Debbi Michiko Florence’s Jasmine, like Andrea Cheng’s Anna Wong, Annie Barrows’ Ivy and Bean, and Derrick Barnes’ Ruby (a very incomplete list!), has to negotiate competing demands on goals in her young life; she doesn’t get discouraged easily. When her Japanese-American family prepares for their New Year’s Day custom of preparing and eating mochi, a traditional delicacy made of rice flour, Jasmine decides that sometimes traditions need to change.
Jasmine is endearing in many ways. She is honest; her bossy older sister Sophie, old enough to participate in cooking mochi with the women of the family, drives her crazy. Jasmine bitterly describes her sister “barking commands…while she picked at the chipped polish on her fingernails.” Florence captures a younger sibling’s resentment without mincing words. Yet revenge against Sophie, or event against her insecure and obnoxious cousin Eddie, a young spokesman for male privilege, is not Jasmine’s goal. She decides that, rather than insist on being allowed to cook mochi two years before the minimal age of ten, she calculates that working with the men and older boys to pound the rice into flour with a heavy kine (mallet) is a more ambitious goal. She develops a physical fitness plan involving strengthening her arm muscles through a variety of activities, from climbing trees to stacking dishes after a spaghetti dinner.
One of the most touching aspects of the book is Florence’s description of Jasmine’s relationships with adults, particularly with her neighbor, Mrs. Reese, and her beloved grandmother, “Obaachan.” Mrs. Reese is not Japanese American, but she is eager to learn about Jasmine’s family’s customs. She is kind and tolerant, offering her home and yard as a neutral haven for her young friend. Jasmine’s grandmother, whom she identifies beautifully as smelling “like a pine forest,” is not a mere symbol of allegiance to older ways. Yes, she initially responds to Jasmine’s desire to pound rice flour with the men by asserting that “Girls no pound mochi. It kisoku, the rule.”
When Jasmine finally succeeds in putting her plan into action, with mixed success, Obaachan praises her: “You make me proud.” She also suggests that the beautiful apron covered with cherry blossoms, which she had intended for Jasmine to use when she was old enough to cook mochi, should be used next year in the rice-pounding process, instead. Jasmine’s parents, and even Sophie, ultimately support her focused feminism.
Elizabet Vuković’s black and white illustrations provide a convincing setting for Jasmine’s world. Her bedroom is a collection of carefully placed art supplies for use in making collages; even without color, we believe Jasmine when she reveals that her favorite color is purple and she is in the process of combining magazine “pictures of grapes and plums and flowers and butterflies and a lavender sunset…” A shelf on the wall contains books, pictures, a stuffed elephant, and also a traditional wooden kokeshi doll. Jasmine is comfortable in her family and her community, but she also needs to assert her own needs. As her mother agrees, “I think today we learned that it’s okay to break some rules,” and her father also decides that “maybe it’s time to break tradition.” Jasmine is not interested in breaking rules merely for the joy of testing boundaries, but rather in order to make things better.
I look forward to reading the other books in the series, including further development of Jasmine’s relationships with both those who support and those who annoy her. Reading about Jasmine Toguchi might send you to your own thinking place. You may also enjoy the recipe for mochi provided at the end of the book, along with helpful background in the “Author’s note.”