Jasmine Toguchi, Brave Explorer – written by Debbi Michiko Florence, pictures by Elizabet Vuković.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022
Debbi Michiko Florence graciously dedicates this fifth installment in the Jasmine Toguchi book series to all her readers who requested more about Jasmine. I am one of those readers, and I was not disappointed by Jasmine’s latest adventure. (I had reviewed the earlier four Jasmine Toguchi entries here and here and here and here, and another Debbi Michiko Florence middle grade novel here). While the series is about the challenges of childhood and Jasmine’s emotional growth, there is an actual element of adventure in this one, as Jasmine and her family visit Japan, affording her an opportunity to finally encounter the country of her heritage, previously experienced through her parents’ and grandmother’s experiences. As always, Florence captures subtleties not always present in chapter books for young readers. Jasmine is a real person. Her delight in the sights and tastes of Tokyo is as tangible as her frustration at confronting the immovable force of a difficult older sister.
The book is not a pretext for a brief introduction to Japan. Jasmine’s excitement, her parents’ empathy, and her older sister Sophie’s apparent failure to understand Jasmine’s perspective are thoroughly believable. At the same time, the setting, a new departure for the series, adds a distinct dimension. The reader views Tokyo Tower, a glimpse of Mt. Fuji, and the simultaneously new and familiar aspects of Japanese food through Jasmine’s eyes. Although Jasmine, unlike Sophie, has not undertaken a systematic study of language and customs, she is more open to assimilating all she sees. As the novel progresses, we learn why Sophie’s methodical approach may not be more sophisticated than Jasmine’s, so much as different.
Journal entries alternate with the narrative, both written in the first person. Jasmine’s observations are those of a bright, curious child, and they ring true. A trip on the subway is a radical departure from the familiar: “It was quiet as a library. People were reading books or looking at their phones. Kids like me were sitting silently…How was I supposed to know this rule?” Jasmine is adaptable because she pays attention, summarizes, and notes her discomfort. Then she learns. What matters to children may not be as significant to adults, but Jasmine’s parents are attuned to their daughters’ needs. Visiting the Sensoji Temple, Jasmine is impressed by the “…ginormous red lantern with Japanese kanji in black written on it,” and the ritual of burning incense, but she is also captivated by the omamori (good luck charms) available for sale. Her parents explain everything and also indulge her with souvenirs.
The pictures are an integral part of the story. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine Jasmine with a different illustrator! They give a sense of Elizabet Vuković reading the story and stopping at key points to enhance it with her images. Of course, that’s not the way the process necessarily works, but a reflection of the way that the text and pictures seem to be seamlessly connected. The careful attention to facial expressions, as well as important objects and foods, advance the plot but also encourage the reader to pause for emphasis. In her author’s note, Florence provides instructions for using hasi (chopsticks), and a recipe for dorayaki pancakes, accompanied by Vuković’s graphics. But all the illustrations coordinate closely with the text, not in the sequential form of a graphic novel but with a similar kind of clear correspondence.
The next volume of the series, Jasmine Toguchi, Peace-Maker, is due to appear in March, and it continues the setting in Japan. In many ways, Debi Michiko Florence reminds me of some of the best classic authors for children in her ability to remember and communicate what it is to be a child. Reading Jasmine Toguchi, Brave Explorer, I was reminded of Patricia Reilly Giff’s wonderful Polk Street School books. Although perhaps best known for her Newbery winning Lily’s Crossing (blog), her series fiction was also memorable. In the special editions, Next Stop, New York City! Look Out, Washington D.C. and Oh Boy, Boston! the kids broaden their horizons by learning about new places. Of course, Jasmine’s connection to Japan is more specific, but both authors know how to elevate these cultural forays above the level of social studies textbooks. Wherever Jasmine goes, we hope to follow her.