Friends and Change

Keep It Together, Keiko Carter: A Wish Novel – Debbi Michiko Florence
Scholastic, 2021

Writing intelligent books with compelling characters for middle grade readers that transcend the most commonly successful formula is not easy.  Nor is writing chapter books for younger children. Debbi Michiko Florence accomplished the latter with her Jasmine Toguchi books. (I would hope to see more of those!) Now, with Keep It Together, Keiko Carter, the first in a series about older girls, she has created a new heroine: bright, introspective, sometimes confused, and often hopeful.   Like Jasmine, Keiko lives in California.  She has a younger sister, and two decidedly imperfect parents who are trying to do their best, even though her mother’s new and demanding job takes her away from the family more frequently than everyone would like.  Keiko has two best friends, Audrey Lassiter and Jenna Sakai.  I know what you’re thinking. That will never work out.  While it is true that some of the girls’ conflicts are partly determined by jealousy, and suspicion that each one may not enjoy the deepest loyalty from the others, this is not a patronizing picture of female relationships. No one in this novel is doomed, through some type of intrinsic gender quality, to turn against a friend. 

Jenna is slowly recovering from the trauma of her parents’ divorce. Audrey is the victim of an apparently dreadful older brother, Connor, who, along with his friends, devises ways to torment the three girls.  Since one friend decides to taunt them with the nickname “the Great Wall of China,” since two of the three are Asian-American, you get the idea of eighth-grade idiocy at its most grotesque.  But many characters in this complex novel are not what they seem.  People change, although not outside of the boundaries of what is possible. Just when you give up hope on one character, the author delivers a surprise. On the other hand, she refuses to deliver the most optimistic resolution in other cases.  Sometimes people are shallow or selfish, even manipulative and cruel.  Keiko is aware of this uncomfortable fact about life, but it doesn’t make her happy.  “I wasn’t afraid of change,” she tells herself honestly, “Just as long as everything else stayed the same.”

Keiko’s mother is of Japanese ancestry, while her father’s background is European-American.  The fact that Jenna’s family is also Japanese-American does give Keiko and Jenna a certain bond, but it does not ultimately determine the way the three girls care about one another or fail to do so.  There are many cultural references which feel authentic, including discussions of movies which the friends watch together.  All three girls are Miyazaki fans, but also enjoy films by John Hughes.  Connor is a fan of classic Hollywood and that turns out to be a good sign. When he and Keiko, along with Audrey, watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Keiko objects to the ugly stereotype of a Japanese man played by Mickey Rooney, Connor empathizes. That’s a good sign.  Audrey accuses Keiko of being overly sensitive.  That’s not a good sign.  Each incident is one small part of a whole, with some moments only fleeting or even misleading, while others turn out to be unexpectedly revealing.

Keiko loves chocolate, even falling for Gregor Whitman, the boy with the same name as a brand of her favorite sweet.  No spoilers here, but think of Shakespeare…As I was reading Keiko’s thoughts about the incredible variety of this food, “Some people think that all chocolate is the same, but they’re wrong,” I couldn’t help remembering The Baby-Sitters Club. While the later books in the series were churned out at record speed to take advantage of their unexpected success, the original ones were wonderful; many children’s authors have paid homage to their influence (for example here and here). Kristy, Stacey, Claudia, and Mary Anne were each individuals with distinct, believable, personalities, and wildly different approaches to conflict.  At their meetings, Claudia Kishi would bring out the chocolate and candy hidden in her room, along with the Nancy Drew novels that her parents found disappointingly non-academic.  Is this inclusion in Keiko Carter an allusion to that earlier group of girls also trying to “keep it together?” Maybe not. Maybe Debbi Michiko Florence isn’t a fan of The Baby-Sitters Club, but if readers are, they might think back to that girl’s bedroom in fictional Stoneybrook, Connecticut.

Why is Keiko Carter, like David Copperfield, the hero of her own life and not just an ingredient in a formula?  She’s vulnerable, self-doubting, loyal, angry, loving, and conscious of her own weaknesses. It may take time for her to reach that last quality, but the process through which she does is unforgettable. 

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