Interview with Beginning Chapter Winners Debbi Michiko Florence and Elizabet Vukovic

Debbi, can you tell us a little about how you came up with Jasmine Toguchi and her stories? How did you develop Jasmine as a character? Why did you choose to focus on taiko drumming?

DMF: I first came up with Jasmine after I read an article about a multi-generational Japanese American family that got together every year at New Years to make mochi the traditional way – by steaming sweet rice, pounding the rice into a gooey mass in a giant bowl with a big hammer, and rolling the mochi into shapes. I knew that in Japan, traditionally, there was a man’s job (pounding mochi) and a woman’s job (rolling the mochi). I wondered what would happen if a little girl wanted to pound mochi. That’s how I got the idea for the first book, Mochi Queen. Jasmine pretty much kept talking in my head until I wrote her story down – that’s her personality! She’s determined and speaks her mind! She is more like my daughter was at that age than I was. I think because I didn’t speak up much as a child, I wanted to create a character who did. Once my editor, Grace Kendall at FSG, made an offer on Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen and asked for three more books to make a series, she helped me hone and polish Jasmine. It wasn’t until I worked with Grace that I came up with Jasmine’s catch phrases “Wowee zowee,” and “Walnuts!” And Jasmine didn’t have a favorite animal (flamingos) until Grace asked about it.

Funny thing about Drummer Girl, I have always wanted to play the taiko drums. I loved watching taiko groups perform. It looked fun and powerful! But I never had the opportunity to play. I purposely chose taiko drumming as something Jasmine wanted to learn because that meant for research I had to take a lesson! I found a teacher 2 hours away and took a lesson from a member of Odaiko New England. I asked her to teach me as if I were 8 years old (Jasmine’s age). The routine I learned was the same one Jasmine plays in the book. I loved playing the taiko drum! I only wish I could find a teacher/group closer to me so I could continue to take lessons.

Elizabet, you’ve illustrated picture books as well as chapter books. Is one easier than the other? What approach did you take to drawing Jasmine? 

EV: In the beginning stages (when developing characters and their environments) both are a bit tricky. But you get more information in chapter books that it becomes easier to come up with characters. Plus the final illustrations are black and white, so less indecisiveness about colors. That said, it makes creating the cover even more fun because you can go all crazy with colors.

I think most illustrators will draw parts of themselves in their characters I don’t think you can totally avoid it. That’s why I think after reading the manuscript I fell in love with Jasmine she seemed so much like myself, growing up with 2 cultures, being the youngest sibling, her strong mentality and so much more. So I really felt like I knew this girl.

Besides her personality that came natural, there were some practical things I considered: Like for her dressing, her activities (climbing tree), climate/weather (California) and the things she loves (flamingos) to incorporate into the clothing (sometimes pattern, sleeves like wings). So you’ll see Jasmine in her shorts/legging sometimes with a band-aid. Same for her hair as an active child I gave her a ponytail felt more comfortable and practical for her adventures. The editor & art director helped out too with things like her height opposed to her sister. For me I wanted to make Jasmine look cool in her own way (not too girly), bit tough, not always sure of herself, bit silly and sweet.

Do both of you work together on the book? Or does Debbi write and then Elizabet illustrate afterward? If it’s the former, what’s the process like? If it’s the latter, does Debbi give feedback on the illustrations, or do you have free reign? 

EV: It’s the latter: Debbi wrote and I got the manuscript (which might have been revised a bit afterward). With the first book in the series I got some feedback on characters from Debbi via the editor and reference images for ideas of Jasmine’s family and objects (used in Japanese culture).  But mostly there was a lot of free reign for the characters.

DMF: Like Elizabet said, I wrote the stories and Elizabet worked on the illustrations after. I was grateful to be able to see the initial sketches. The first time I saw Elizabet’s drawing of Jasmine, I cried tears of joy. It was like seeing your baby for the first time! Elizabet had captured Jasmine and her personality perfectly! I am so very grateful to Elizabet for her wonderful illustrations for the entire series. I only have one small complaint though – that Jasmine has a better wardrobe than I do! 

We love Jasmine’s spunk! Was there anything from when you were a kid that inspired Jasmine?

DMF: Thanks! Like I said, I wasn’t too much like Jasmine at her age. I tended to avoid conflict and I didn’t really speak my mind around adults. I celebrated Girl’s Day with my family almost exactly like Jasmine does in Super Sleuth. I did get to climb my neighbor’s apricot tree whenever I wanted and I did have a close-knit group of childhood friends. However, unlike Jasmine, I was the older sister, and I admit I was kind of like Sophie. Apologies to my younger sister, Gail! 

EV: As a kid I was reserved at school but at home all the crazy came out I was an entertainer/joker for my family but also wanting to compete with my older siblings (especially brother). I wanted to show my parents girls can be stronger and smarter.

If you don’t mind telling us, what’s next for you?

EV: Recently a picture book I illustrated released called “Be a Maker” by Katey Howes (Carolrhoda/Lerner Books) That was both challenging and fun to illustrate, including many strong women! Currently I’m working on a picture book “An Ordinary Day” by Elana K. Arnold (Beach Lane Books). and a Ready-to-Read biography about Ruth Bader Ginsburg (SimonSpotlight).

DMF: I have an early chapter book series coming out with Capstone this August called My Furry Foster Family, about a girl who fosters pets with her family. There are four books in the series. I loved writing these books because I love animals – I have a degree in zoology and had a lot of pets growing up. Today we have a rescue dog, bunny, and two ducks at home.

Thank you so much for your time!

DMF: Thank you so much for the honor and for reaching out!

EV: Thank you!

Be sure to check Debbi out at her website  and on Twitter.  Elizabet can be found at her website and Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram