While I Was Away
by Brown, Waka T.

When twelve-year-old Waka's parents suspect she cannot understand the basic Japanese they speak to her, they make a drastic decision to send her to Tokyo to live for several months with her grandmother.

*Starred Review* Twelve-year-old Waka's parents realize that, despite being raised in a bilingual household, her Japanese needs a boost, so they send her to live with her grandmother and attend school in Japan for five months. Waka is horrified, not wanting to leave Kansas, friends, and family, but she comes to find that her stay in Japan deepens her cultural understanding, family ties, and sense of self. Brown's debut novel, set from 1983 to 1984, is based on her own experience and perfectly captures the rhythms and cadences of American middle school and Japanese family life. The inclusion of Japanese script, with romanized phonetics and English translations, immerses the reader in Waka's world. Brown directly addresses culture shock, with Waka going from star pupil in Kansas to "dumb jock" in Japan, where she is unable to read fluently and mocked for her accent. Today's tweens will see many similarities between her experiences and their own; bullying from boys and the more subtle but equally painful snubs by girl cliques are especially well drawn. Immigrants from any culture will identify with the difficulties of negotiating a new country and school. But most touching is the transformation of Waka's relationship with her grandmother, a reserved matriarch with a fierce temper. Finally, Brown eschews a Hollywood happy ending, staying true to Japanese traditions and culture, for a far more poignant and realistic ending. Grades 4-7. Copyright 2021 Booklist Reviews.

In 1984, a 12-year-old Kansas girl spends five months in Japan with the intimidating grandmother she barely knows. At school, Waka is used to being regarded as a brain-as well as the short kid. At home, her Japanese immigrant parents worry that in striving so hard to be American, she is losing touch with her heritage. The solution? Sending her to Japan to live with Obaasama and attend a local public school despite her strenuous protests. In her new Japanese school, Waka's language struggles and cultural faux pas make her stand out-and not in a good way. On the other hand, she is considered tall and a jock. Breaking into established social circles presents another puzzle. But everything pales in comparison to learning to get along with her taciturn grandmother, whose traumatic history and emotional complexity come to light as their relationship deepens. Waka finds inner strength she didn't know she had, cultivates greater self-awareness, and comes to truly love many aspects of Japan. The author shares her story in a conversational and accessible tone. Many facets of life in the 1980s will be as surprising as the U.S.?"Japan cultural differences that readers unfamiliar with Japan discover alongside young Waka. International travel aside, the journey of coming to see oneself and others through more mature eyes is a universally familiar element of the middle school years, adding additional appeal. An emotional, contemplative tale of risking and growing. (author's note) (Memoir. 10-14) Copyright Kirkus 2020 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

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