Jasmine Toguchi: “What Was A Talent Anyway?”

Jasmine Toguchi, Drummer Girl – Debbi Michiko Florence and Elizabet Vuković, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018

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If you have read the other books in the Jasmine Toguchi series (which I have reviewed here and here and here), then you know that Jasmine is a generally confident and capable third grader. She has supportive parents, an affectionate, if controlling, older sister, and Mrs. Reese, a lovely older neighbor who provides her with space to unwind and contemplate the problems that inevitably arise in even so anchored a young life. When her teacher, Ms. Sánchez, announces a school-wide talent show, Jasmine is forced to confront some big questions.  Most of her talents, including making collages and climbing trees, don’t lend themselves to performance.  Even worse, a new classmate, Maggie Milsap, is so supremely convinced of skills as a violinist, and of her general superiority to everyone around her, that Jasmine Toguchi briefly confronts despair.  But that is not the Jasmine we know.  After admitting that she is at a loss, Jasmine is ready to move forward: “I needed to figure it out, and fast!”

Jasmine’s mother is not perfect, but she is wonderful.  Not only is she a great role model as a successful editor, but she listens to her children and empathizes with their dilemmas with impressive consistency, considering that she is constantly multitasking in a way which young readers may not appreciate but parents enjoying the books with them certainly will.  She is able to elicit her daughter’s real feelings about the talent show, and also comes up with a brilliant and yet totally feasible plan, involving getting her college friend Kat to teach her to play the traditional Japanese taiko drums.  In fact, Kat doesn’t only teach her friend’s daughter some routinized movements so that she can parrot them in front of her friends and their parents, but, acting as a kind of surrogate mother, she imbues in Jasmine both respect for tradition and an overwhelming feeling of physical confidence and joy.  And she does this without minimizing the hard part: there are rules.

There are many small details, which set Jasmine Toguchi apart from some of her counterparts in series fiction chapter books.  Two funny and touching allusions to other works of literature pop up in Jasmine Toguchi, Drummer Girl, one intentional, and one, maybe not. Jasmine’s favorite book is E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. She compares her friendship with Linnie Green to the bond between Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig, an indirect analogy since Charlotte is dedicated to saving the life of an animal meant to be turned into food from the day of his birth.  Linnie, on the other hand, is loyal and compassionate. Through her consistent sensitivity and support, she will save her friend from self-doubt and anxiety about the talent show.  Children don’t necessarily read books or relate to characters exactly the same way that adults do; Jasmine’s association of her favorite book and her beloved friend make that point.

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Of course, the range of readers’ responses is not limited to the spectrum of age.  When I read the scene where Jasmine and her classmates lunch together in the school cafeteria, I immediately thought of another children’s book where differences in lunch box contents reflect the characters’ unique qualities.  Jasmine opens her unicorn lunchbox and enumerates its contents, and also relates the exchange of items with her friends: “She handed me her yogurt and I gave her my banana.”  To me, this scene echoed Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Bread and Jam for Frances. (If you have forgotten about the strong-willed little female badger, go back to that wonderful series of picture books and easy readers.) Caught in a picky eating cycle that seems it will never end, Frances reluctantly admires her friend Albert’s elegantly simply fare:

“I have a cream cheese-cucumber-and-tomato sandwich on rye bread…And a pickle to go with it…And a hard-boiled egg and a little cardboard shaker of salt to go with that. And a thermos  bottle of milk. And a bunch of grapes and a tangerine.  And a cup custard and spoon to eat it with.”

Jasmine is not a picky eater and Michiko Florence is not imitating Hoban’s work.  But the significance of what children eat, centered on both their own choices and those of their parents, turns up with a new twist. Jasmine is Japanese-American and her stories all integrate the intertwining richness of her family heritage and her American life:

“I used to bring sandwiches every day, but when my grandma visited from Japan, she made omusubi.  I loved eating the rice balls wrapped in nori, or seaweed….Sometimes Mom puts a treat in the middle of my rice ball, like pickled radish or a piece of roast chicken.”

Jasmine’s friends’ lunches are also individualized.  Tommy has his turkey sandwich and chips, while Daisy, whose mother is a baker, brings “star-shaped cookies dusted with powdered sugar.” Jasmine’s world is full of the unprejudiced diversity of childhood.

As always, Elizabet Vuković’s black, white, and shaded drawings capture perfectly the ups and downs of Jasmine’s daily life.  We see Jasmine practicing her drumming on a gomi-kan, or trashcan, her parents and sister cheering her on. Her father, eyes closed in complete immersion in the performances, raises, his arms over his head, making them the highest point of the picture. His support is as crucial as Jasmine’s mom’s understanding.  On the other end of the parenting scale, we see a deflated Maggie Milsap holding her violin case while her father clutches a brief case and checks his cell phone.  Vuković’s drawings are as natural and understated as Michiko Florence’s language.

Now I have to wait for Debbi Michiko Florence to add more books to Jasmine’s saga.  I hope that will happen soon.

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