Mystical Author Debbi Michiko Florence Celebrates Her Latest Teen Novel
Is there a concept as magically “forever” as childhood friendship? Whether you come from when they were called ‘boyfriends’ or your peer group now refers to ‘best friends’, that early bond between kindred spirits – where every day is a new adventure to share and distill – is, looking back over the decades, among a person’s most treasured experiences.
The intensity of this camaraderie partly reflects the relative lack of life experiences young people had at the time – so each new twist in the relationship can be almost overwhelming in significance and omen.
These are the issues at play in “Sweet and Sour,” the latest mid-level novel by Mystic author Debbi Michiko Florence, a third-generation Japanese-American whose previous works for teens and children include “Keep It Together, Keiko Carter” and “Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai.
In the new book, Mai Hirano and Zach Koyama, 12 and 13 respectively, have been best friends since childhood. Because their parents — also close friends — live in different parts of the county, Mai and Zach only get together during the six weeks of summer they share at her parents’ Mystic vacation home.
Usually, when Mai’s family arrives for the annual get-together, they would be delighted. But this year, the memory of the last time she saw Zach, when he did something that upset her, has soured. During their two years apart, during which Zach’s family lived in Japan, Mai dealt with her emotions as she tried to imagine the most delicious way to get revenge on Zach.
But, now that they’re all back together for the summer, Zach is just as charming as ever, thrilled to see Mai, and seems completely unaware that he’s done anything wrong. Is he so ignorant – or did Mai misinterpret what happened? The situation is complicated by the appearance of some of Zach’s school friends from across the state, making it difficult for Mai to find the right opportunity for revenge. One of these newcomers, the endearing and openly nice Celeste, innocently provides information about what Zach has been up to since Mai saw him. But Celeste’s only positive reports only confuse Mai further. Is it possible that Mai misinterpreted what happened?
“Childhood friendships are special,” Florence said in a chat last week. “Some of them don’t last as children grow naturally; others may have their ups and downs but actually endure. It is very interesting to come back to them.
Florence celebrates the publication of “Sweet and Sour” with a party outside Mystic’s Bank Square Books on Saturday. The novel is so Mystic-centric, Florence points out, that Bank Square Books is depicted on the novel’s cover and Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream is on the back.
At the party, Florence will discuss books and teen fiction with her friend Jo Knowles, author of “Meant to Be.” There will be a scavenger hunt focusing on nearby mystical landmarks, a raffle for prizes and treats from Nana’s Bakery and Pizza’s pastry chef, Maddy Redden. Oh, and if you show a copy of the book to Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream, you’ll get 50% off any size cone on the day of the event.
The nature of friendship
Florence was inspired to explore the themes of “Sweet and Sour” during the pandemic, when isolation forced her to reflect on how time and distance change things.
“Bob (Florence) is my husband and my best friend and we love being together, but COVID has come with a lot of uncertainty,” Florence says. “I realized that I had taken old friends for granted. Suddenly, I don’t know if or when we will meet again.
And in writing about middle schoolers and teens — she’s written more than 20 other books and collections, including the Jasmine Toguchi, My Furry Foster Family and Dorothy and Toto series — it’s only natural that Florence turns her thoughts on friendship into fiction.
“I wondered what could happen if two best friends had a misunderstanding, but it couldn’t be resolved because they’re estranged,” Florence says. “Mai is frustrated because she can’t see how Zach is reacting or not to her pain and anger. When you’re a kid and you’re separated and you can’t work things out, you tell stories in your head and the situation exaggerates and grows. And I wanted to explore what happens if one friend is so angry and hurt and the other has no idea something bad happened.
Since the incident that sparked Mai’s anger and disappointment dates back two years, Michiko became concerned that too much of the narrative’s exposition was mired in flashback detail. Then she had the idea of using the title of the book as a springboard. The chapters alternate between Mai’s “sweet” and “sour” associations – past and present – with the ongoing story. Ultimately, as the book’s cover teaser suggests, Mai learns “there are three sides to every story – hers, hers, and the truth.”
“For children of this age, the past is very significant and close,” says Florence. “And it was interesting to explore that from my perspective now. Childhood nostalgia can be very powerful.
“Sweet and Sour” is dedicated to Lisa Fung, who Florence has been friends with since they were 4 years old in California. In fact, Fung is flying out to be at the book party on Saturday.
sweet mystical home
One of the main “characters” in the novel is Mystic himself. Local readers will appreciate the loving references to iconic village images and locations – and the homage was intentional and even celebratory.
“It’s the first time I’ve written a book or a story about a place where I currently reside,” says Florence. “All the other books are in a made-up town because even though my parents live in Orange County, I don’t call it home. Bob (a chemist) and I moved because of his job before we relocating to Mystic. We have been here for almost 10 years now and it is the first place to call home. We love it here and have no intention of going anywhere.
The pandemic lockdown offered Florence the opportunity to marinate, if you will, in the mystique of her surroundings, which added atmosphere and texture to the ongoing manuscript.
“It’s really a shelter-in-place novel,” says Florence, “and really a summer romance. I wrote it in the summer, and since both characters aren’t from here but are just coming over for the summer, I was able to just enjoy the process from their perspective as visitors to a special place. I couldn’t go anywhere, so I wrote about things I knew.
She laughs. “When we were able to go out again, I realized that I had misunderstood the physical perspective of a scene. Anyone who has read it and knows Mystic will realize that it couldn’t have happened the way I did. wrote. So I had to figure out how to fix this.
Florence does not invent her novels. She usually starts with a premise or character and lets the story unfold as she writes. “A lot of the fun is just letting the characters develop and seeing where they take me,” she says.
Florence relies on friends and members of her writing group to read drafts, but says she doesn’t have young readers.
“A lot of the reviewers and junior editors at (her publisher) Scholastic tend to be younger, so they’ll call me. ‘No one says that anymore,’ Florence says. She laughs. ‘I’m working on something right now. moment, though, and I had to ask a friend’s 12-year-old if she and her friends still use the word ‘disgusting’. Turns out they do.
If you are going to
Who: Debbie Michiko Florence
What: Party celebrating her new teen novel “Sweet and Sour”
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: In front of Bank Square Books, 53 W. Main St., Mystic
How much: free
For more information: (860) 536-3795, www.banksquarebooks.com, www.debbimichikoflorence.com