While I Was Away

HarperCollins/Quill Tree. Jan. 2021. 320p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780063017115.
Gr 6 Up–Fearing that she no longer understands Japanese or is connected with her culture, 12-year-old Brown’s parents send her to live with her grandmother in Tokyo for five months the summer after sixth grade. Uprooted from 1980s Kansas, Brown feels like a typical American middle schooler, and she does not look forward to attending school in Japan or living with her grandmother, who she views as a stern and serious woman. The narrative follows Brown during her time in Japan as she struggles to befriend her classmates, develop her Japanese language skills, and connect with her grandmother in a country she views as her parents’ home rather than her own. The text includes an introduction and an author’s note, which explain some aspects of Japanese pronunciation to readers and provides additional contextual information about the time period. Fans of Erin Entrada Kelly and Jasmine Warga will enjoy Brown’s honest exploration of differences between American and Japanese culture and her sometimes bumpy journey to fit in with her classmates and her family.
VERDICT This memoir artfully depicts Brown’s experience as a child who feels pulled between two cultures. A welcome addition to any middle grade collection.

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