Jasmine Toguchi, Flamingo Keeper – Debbi Michiko Florence and Elizabet Vuković, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018
In the most recent release in the Jasmine Toguchi saga, Jasmine’s dilemma involves wanting a pet, which is typical. The pet is a flamingo, which is not typical. One of the most attractive qualities of the series and its heroine are the familiarity of the little girl’s challenges and the distinctly individual feeling of her responses to them. Along the way towards understanding herself and her family, Jasmine introduces Japanese customs to young readers in a natural and delightful way. In Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen we rooted for Jasmine’s persistence in assuming a new role for girls within the Japanese New Year’s custom of preparing special rice treats. In Jasmine Toguchi, Flamingo Keeper, Florence embeds the traditional practice of using daruma dolls to make and fulfill wishes within the recognizable story of a child who longs for an unrealistic outcome. (The book includes instructions for a daruma doll craft project.) I really didn’t know how this one would turn out! A flamingo seemed an unlikely pet, but then again, so did the idea of a tough little girl pounding rice into mochi flour in defiance of male authority.
Jasmine’s beloved Obaachan (grandmother) sends both Jasmine and her older sister, Sophie, paper daruma dolls. Their parents explain that they will need to fill in one eye on the traditional doll as they make a wish, and wait to complete the other eye until the wish is fulfilled. No problem! Now Jasmine will get the pet flamingo she has always wanted. (Jasmine’s mom, an editor, tells her that she had used the doll to wish for a dictionary when she was a child. I love her!) Later, in a video chat, Obaachan explains to the girls that they will need to make their wishes come true: “Nothing come free. You work hard. You make goal.” Well, that’s a little deflating, but Jasmine learns a powerful lesson, with the help of her parents, and even her sometimes mean but often loving older sister.
Vuković’s pictures are expressive and kid-friendly portraits of situations and emotions, but also draw on traditional Asian brushstrokes. The book is beautifully designed, with Jasmine on the cover, arms crossed in triumph, with her fantasy-flamingo, complete with collar and leash. The picture of the video chat with their grandmother centers on the older woman’s kindly face on their computer, and the back of Sophie and Jasmine’s heads, as we imagine the skeptical but respectful expressions as they listen to Obaachan’s instructions.
There are many middle grade novels, fortunately, about strong little girls making their mark in the world; it isn’t easy to create a heroine who stands out for her fortitude and imagination, as well as her ability to navigate two cultures. Debbi Michiko Florence and Elizabet Vuković have succeeded. I look forward to more of Jasmine’s realistic conflicts and touchingly imperfect resolutions.