Three Middle Grade Books that Center Japanese Culture and Characters

These three varied titles explore connections to Japan and Japanese culture in unique ways.

These varied titles explore connections to Japan and Japanese culture in unique ways. In Bowman’s Generation Misfits, new student Millie stumbles into school drama and lasting friendships when she joins a Japanese cultural appreciation club and sets out to form a J-pop cover band, while roller derby player Tomoko learns how to overcome her shyness and show up for her team in Rosewater’s Tomoko Takes the Lead. From Kashiwaba, the author whose work inspired the film Spirited Away, Temple Alley Summer’s gently spooky ghost tale centers Kazu, a boy who discovers the true meaning of living on Kimyo Temple Alley when apparitions start frequenting his home.

Bowman, Akemi Dawn. Generation Misfits. 352p. Farrar. Jun. 2021. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780374313746.
Gr 5 Up –Eleven-year-old Japanese American student Millie Nakakura is starting her first day of school at Brightside Academy, a K–12 magnet school for visual and performing arts. The day gets off to a rough start when Millie, a former homeschooler, is late to several of her classes, spills her lunch on the most popular girl in school, and struggles to make friends. Spotting a flyer in the hallway, Millie shows up to J-Club, a Japanese cultural appreciation group. There, she meets Tina Suzuki (Zuki for short) and the two become fast friends. Hoping to increase membership, Zuki and Millie hold open auditions to turn J-Club into a cover band of their favorite J-pop girl group, Generation Love. Soon they are joined by nonbinary student Ashley Seo, shy theater student Rainbow Chan, and popular dancer Luna Acevedo. The band of self-described misfits sets their sights on trying out for the Pop Showcase, a school talent show, but along the way they form lasting bonds of friendship. Millie struggles to balance schoolwork, J-Club, and practicing the flute for the school band with her parents’ high expectations of excellence. Meanwhile, Zuki begins seeing the school counselor regularly for problems related to her home life, Rainbow is tormented by bullies, and Luna and Ashley must face a tough conversation stemming from a misunderstanding in their past to resolve tension in the present. The novel’s strength lies in writing that respects the emotional lives of adolescents, and in the realistic and honest portrayal of young people supporting one another on their journey to becoming their true selves. VERDICT This character-centered coming-of-age novel features authentic dialogue with a fully realized cast of diverse characters, and celebrates the power, importance, and value of friendship. Highly recommended for school and ­public ­library collections.–­Samantha Lumetta, P.L. of Cincinnati and Hamilton Cty., OH

Kashiwaba, Sachiko. Temple Alley ­Summer. tr. from Japanese by Avery ­Fischer Udagawa. illus. by Miho Satake. 240p. Yonder. Jul. 2021. Tr $18. ISBN 9781632063038.
Gr 3-7 –It all starts with a ghost story show on TV one night, a show self-proclaimed scaredy-cat Kazuhiro Sada knows he has no business watching. Late that night, Kazu sees a pale figure sneaking out of his family’s altar room. Could it be a ghost? Then he sees the same figure in his class the very next day—a girl known as Akari who all of his friends insist he’s known since kindergarten. When he learns the street he and Akari live on used to be called Kimyo Temple Alley, a name that implies the dead coming back to life, Kazu’s sure something fishy is going on. But as he spends the summer delving deeper into this mystery and befriending Akari, things will become even more complicated and strange than he could’ve imagined. A humorous yet thoughtful mystery chock-full of the fantastical, this is a must-read for young fans of Studio Ghibli—an especially warranted comparison, as another book by Kashiwaba served as inspiration for Spirited Away. Lovingly translated into English from the original 2011 text, this version is completely accessible to an English-language audience while retaining a classic Japanese sensibility and storytelling style. All characters default as Japanese. VERDICT An excellent choice for fantasy lovers of all ages, particularly those who enjoy magical realism and a dose of the supernatural. Highly recommended.–Kaitlin Frick, Darien Lib., CT

Rosewater, Kit. Tomoko Takes the Lead. illus. by Sophie Escabasse. 176p. (Derby Daredevils: Bk. 3). Amulet. Jun. 2021. Tr $14.99. ISBN 9781419751721.

Gr 4-7 –The third installment of Rosewater’s series is told from Tomoko’s perspective and finds the Derby Daredevils traveling to Dallas for a weeklong training camp with another junior league. Tomoko, who is Japanese American and quite shy, is nervous about the trip; she is still getting comfortable with her new friends and was looking forward to a summer of bonding. Tomoko is an avid camper, however, and her uncle helps her see that the trip might give her the chance to be a leader for her team. When she finds out that the camp is at a convention center instead of a campground, Tomoko must find other ways to share her strengths and get to know the new derby players. This is made all the more difficult by a bully whose constant microaggressions wear on Tomoko but go unnoticed by her friends. As in the first two books, the world of roller derby offers a unique and engaging backdrop for the author’s tender exploration of friendship, teamwork, communication, and identity. Escabasse’s appealing grayscale illustrations appear every few pages and help to bring the story and its characters to life. VERDICT Warm, relevant, and inclusive, this title is accessible to readers who are new to the series, and a welcome addition for those who are already fans. Recommended.–Lauren Strohecker, McKinley Elem. Sch., Elkins Park, PA

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