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While I Was Away

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The Farewell meets Erin Entrada Kelly's Blackbird Fly in this empowering middle grade memoir from debut author Waka T. Brown, who takes readers on a journey to 1980s Japan, where she was sent as a child to reconnect to her family’s roots.

When twelve-year-old Waka’s parents suspect she can’t 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 strict grandmother. Forced to say goodbye to her friends and what would have been her summer vacation, Waka is plucked from her straight-A-student life in rural Kansas and flown across the globe, where she faces the culture shock of a lifetime.

In Japan, Waka struggles with reading and writing in kanji, doesn’t quite mesh with her complicated and distant Obaasama, and gets made fun of by the students in her Japanese public-school classes. Even though this is the country her parents came from, Waka has never felt more like an outsider.

If she’s always been the “smart Japanese girl” in America but is now the “dumb foreigner” in Japan, where is home...and who will Waka be when she finds it?

320 pages, ebook

First published January 26, 2021

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Waka T. Brown

3 books62 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 186 reviews
Profile Image for Betsy.
Author 8 books2,737 followers
November 19, 2021
Memory is unreliable. On some level we all know this to be true. Two people can live through the same experience and have two entirely different interpretations of what happened at the time. So when we run across memoirs written with young readers in mind, we have to take them with a grain of salt. Now I’m a bit of a nonfiction stickler when it comes to children’s books. If I see a picture book on a historical figure and there’s even a hint of fake dialogue, I got into full-on evil librarian mode. But memoirs? I dunno. That’s where you get into a strange gray area. I mean, if you consider that any picture book that looks at history is going to be inherently inaccurate because of its illustrations, then can’t you say that any personal memoir is going to be inherently inaccurate because it’s based so heavily on the author’s own fragile, flippant memories? Seen in that light, the fake dialogue doesn’t seem so bad. Besides, it’s hard to hold anything against Waka T. Brown’s While I Was Away. A historical piece (because apparently 1984 is distant history now), Waka fills her book with all the pathos, yearning, frustrations, and humor you might find in a middle grade novel. The important difference? It’s all true. It’s all real. It’s all enthralling.

Who knew ignoring your mom could have such dire consequences? When Waka ignores her mom’s request in Japanese to fold the laundry, she inadvertently convinces her parents that she’s losing her ability to speak Japanese. Now Mom and Dad have instituted (what she calls) “Plan Ruin Waka’s Life”. Instead of having a peaceful summer with her friends, Waka’s being shipped off to Japan to attend school all summer. Even scarier? She’ll be staying with grandmother, her Obaasama, a woman that all her relatives seem to fear. Usually the top of her class, Waka quickly discovers she’s now traded in her old brainiac identity for a new one: dumb jock. Can she survive five months learning kanji, dealing with new friends (and their dramas), and getting to know Obaasama? She’ll have to. It’s 1984 and like it or not, Waka’s about to have the experience of a lifetime.

Each author of children’s books harbors a superpower. They have an ability to do some particular aspect of writing for kids particularly well. Some can conjure particularly memorable characters. Some pull at your heartstrings in the very first chapter. And Waka T. Brown? Her secret writing superpower appears to be an unparalleled ability to channel indignation. Is there any feeling more potent than of feeling that you’re being treated unfairly? Waka pretty much feels that way from chapter one onward, and it’s heady. They say a writer should tap into what they know, and clearly this particular author’s internal 12-year-old self is alive, well, with a well tended sense of indignation burning like a hot little coal in her heart. This isn't cringe comedy. It's good old-fashioned unfairness. In other words, memoir gold!

The older I get, the less patience I have with children’s books that are boring. I mean, a kid will tell you right from the start that they won’t read a boring book. Adults have a much lower boredom tolerance. I know I used to. But now that I’m getting older and crankier, I’m finding that I want my kids books to eschew boring build ups and dull descriptions. As such, I have developed an incredible respect for any author that knows how to cut through the treacle (if you know what I mean). And Waka T. Brown? A first class treacle-cutter. Just look at that beautiful first chapter. We meet our heroine. We are introduced to her problem (and more than a chunk of her personality) within a mere THREE pages! By the end of chapter two she's walking to the flight attendant. It's marvelous! As if all the superfluous details were edited out long ago leaving only a tight, sweet title.

And, of course, this is a work of history. The whole story takes place during the summer of 1984, as evidenced by the Summer Olympics. We’re getting to the point where we’re seeing more and more 80s history in our children’s books, particularly personal memoirs. Eugene Yelchin, for example, penned The Genius Under the Table which is a very different early 80s story about his childhood. In Waka’s case, I was fascinated by the degree to which she makes the time period known. Interestingly, she doesn’t make nostalgia do the bulk of the heavy lifting in terms of plot and place. The time period is there but it’s sprinkled into the narrative (like an off-handed mention of grape-flavored Laffy Taffy) never dominating the text. Some memoirs like to swim in the past, never relenting, desperately afraid that readers are going to forget that the book in their hands doesn’t take place today. Waka’s book in contrast is cool, collected, and at ease with itself.

I had the pleasure of listening to this book as an audio book, and I can tell you that there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to going this route. The advantage is that reader Chieko Hidaka never leaves you in doubt when it comes to Japanese text and pronunciations. Her read is smooth and clear from start to finish. The disadvantage then is that you never get to see the visuals, which come up surprisingly often in the physical book. There’s a jokey piece of art sent in the mail from her siblings. There's a beautiful example of Waka’s more accomplished calligraphy. Coded messages. And, of course, the kanji, bane of young Waka’s life. One thing that impressed me listening to the book was how easy it was for me to distinguish between all the characters. Waka fills the book with people on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, and yet I almost never had to wonder whom one person or another was.

I’d probably be amiss if I didn’t delve just a little bit into Waka’s ability to tap into the essential complexity of the book’s most fascinating character: Obaasama. Waka lures you into a false sense of security with her grandmother. After the first few chapters you’d be forgiven for thinking, “Ah. I’ve read this before. This is one of those books where the grandma is supposed to be scary but has a heart of gold and isn’t frightening at all by the end. Like the grandfather in Heidi or something.” So that when that familiar through line turns out to be very wrong, you feel just as stunned and betrayed as Waka. Obaasama’s trauma still informs her life, and like a child, you see only the merest glimpse of it. This isn't a book of types. It's a book of real people. Real problems and all.

For books that pair particularly well with this one, consider getting your hands on Diary of a Tokyo Teen: A Japanese-American Girl Travels to the Land of Trendy Fashion, High-Tech Toilets and Maid Cafes by Christine Mari Inzer. Though touted as YA, it’s not that much more mature than Waka’s experiences, and offers a fun glimpse at how Japan changed in the intervening twenty years since While I Was Away took place. More to the point, it speaks to that “halfway home” feeling of leaving part of your heart in your other home, whether it’s Japan or America. Waka talks a little about that feeling, but in the grand spirit of “show don’t tell” this book is a better testament. Smart and funny, it has the easygoing feel of a novel, with enough information and specifics to plant it firmly in a specific date and time. As good for children with some working knowledge of Japan as it is for kids who know next to nothing about the country. A thorough delight.
Profile Image for Cindy.
Author 4 books315 followers
January 8, 2021
One of my favorite things about mentoring for #PitchWars for several years was that I got the chance to read early pages from so many wonderful books that have gone on to get published. One of those was Waka T. Brown's beautiful middle grade memoir, WHILE I WAS AWAY, which tells the story of the five months she lived in Japan with her grandmother when she was twelve. Reading the opening chapters during PW, I was immediately intrigued by the story, and while I didn't go on to become Waka's mentor, it's one of those books I've often thought of since.

I was so thrilled when Waka asked if I was interested in reading an early copy of WHILE I WAS AWAY, which comes out on the 26th of this month. It ended up being my last read of 2020/first read of 2021, and when I finished it yesterday I closed the book with a satisfied sigh and a few tears, too. It's a beautifully written book. Waka does an amazing job of capturing all the different sides of her experience: the culture shock when her parents send her, alone, for an extended stay in a country she's only visited a few times previously; the relationship with her grandmother, which is nuanced and complex and manages to be endearing and lovely without being easy or comfortable; the fascinating details about what school life was like in Japan.

Most of all, Waka has a deep talent for capturing the universal aspects of a unique experience. Whether kids have had an experience living somewhere other than their home country or not, they'll definitely resonate with the stories she tells about her struggles in a school where she feels confused and overwhelmed by the subjects taught, and the complicated politics and pressure of trying to figure out which friendships are worth cultivating and which friendships are tearing her down.

Middle grade fans, definitely get yourself a copy of this one when it releases in a few weeks! It's a book that will linger with me for a long time.
Profile Image for Kathie.
Author 2 books66 followers
January 25, 2021
Thank you to Edelweiss+ and the publisher for an eARC of this book.

Wow. This 5 star nonfiction memoir by debut author Waka T. Brown is fascinating. Waka's mom is worried about how weak her Japanese is, so she decides to send Waka to Japan for 5 months to live with her grandmother and go to school to immerse herself in the language. Waka attended this school for a short period of time on a previous visit, but this time her May-October stay will mean she is expected to learn and participate as a regular classmate rather than a special visitor. Waka is also expected to go by herself, and she's nervous about living alone with a grandmother whom she doesn't know well. During her stay, Waka not only learns more Japanese and how to write/speak it, but she also learns about her family and has a chance to know her relatives in new ways, especially her grandmother.

There's such a unique voice to this story, which made it feel very original. Not only are there cultural difference between how Canadian and Japanese classmates interact, and how friendship groups are maintained, but I really appreciated seeing the ways in which Waka and her grandmother tried to find a way to coexist given their very different backgrounds. Though there are tender moments between them, I love the honest portrayal of trying to find a connection with someone who is family, but feels very distant.

This will definitely be on my list of favorite reads for 2021.
Profile Image for Farah Firdaus.
595 reviews210 followers
January 19, 2023
In this memoir, Waka T. Brown recounts the months when she was sent away to Japan (against her will) because her parents suspect that their 12-year-old daughter was having trouble understanding basic Japanese. Not only that, she also has to live with her strict and grumpy grandmother that she barely knows.

"By being away, I traveled to realms in my mind and my heart and my soul that I didn't now were even there."

While I Was Away was a fun, light and heartwarming read about finding oneself, embracing changes and the connections we make along the way. In Japan, Waka met so many people - people who are nice, not-so-nice and people like her grandmother, who are capable of being both nice and not-so-nice at the same time. Although she had trouble making friends and learning kanji, her resilience and determination have helped her to learn more about herself and take on more colours, like ajisai, of the world. 4/5 stars.
Profile Image for Kaela Noel.
Author 2 books69 followers
February 1, 2021
Wow. This book is a masterpiece. It deserves all the stars and all the awards, and the widest possible readership. If you enjoy extremely well-written books with a vivid sense of place, nuanced characterization, and wonderful detail (and humor!), do not miss this one!

Some things I just loved about it:

-Waka’s character is deeply likable. She’s goodhearted in a realistic way, quite perceptive, and wise, and she has a real backbone and solid sense of right and wrong. She’s soulful, upbeat, and clear-eyed. She deals with several different sticky interpersonal situations in a way that I found inspiring and believable, even if the outcomes are ultimately bittersweet.

-There is not the slightest whiff of anything pedantic or patronizing in the book or its tone. It doesn’t talk down, it doesn’t feel like it is trying to be “educational,” it is just authentic, richly detailed, and respectful of the intelligence and curiosity of readers.

-WHILE I WAS AWAY is also one of the rare memoirs that is accessible to kids while also truly being for all ages, including adults. And it reads like a novel.

-The 1980s details are vivid and realistic, for both the Kansas and Japanese settings. I loved the inclusion of Japanese phrases (they are translated every time) and specific details about day-to-day life in 1980s Tokyo and the structure of the Japanese school system. It’s fascinating and very engaging to read about.

I am blown away by Waka T. Brown’s talent and cannot wait for her next book!
October 28, 2020
I was so excited to win this book! It is one that hits home for me. My Grandparents made a very similar journey back to Japan in the 1920s. I felt like I was learning about them through the book, and that meant a lot to me. I read through this one fast. I didn't want to put it down. Also very relatable to be in the middle of two cultures. I'm glad this book talks about this. There is so much to pick up between these pages. I loved it. Really really thankful to have read this.
Profile Image for Barbara H.
691 reviews
May 19, 2021
Although this is classified as a Young Adult book, it captivated me immediately and held my interest
throughout. This memoir was a sensitive and perceptive rendering of the author's experience in Japan for six months away from her family and friends. Her parents, of Japanese American heritage, were determined that their offspring would retain the language well, learn the customs and create a close relationship with relatives in their native land. The homesickness, anguish and feelings of incompetence for this twelve year old girl, Waka, were clearly expressed throughout the authors recounting of this experience.

In addition to language details and difficulties in acquiring related skills, Brown has added interesting features relevant to writing, calligraphy and learning to read. She has not neglected cultural nuances, often of great importance in Japan. Also her descriptions of the foods, the landscape and the architecture completed the education for young Waka, as well as the reader.
Profile Image for Tammy.
471 reviews1 follower
March 6, 2023
It’s not often I have come across a middle grade memoir, and this one was exceptional!! Waka is a twelve year old Japanese American girl growing up in Kansas. One day when she ignores her mother’s directions in Japanese to help fold the laundry, her mother becomes concerned that Waka is forgetting Japanese. Her family decides to send her to Japan to live with her grandmother for 5 months and to attend school to practice her Japanese. This story was so immersive, I felt like I was going to school with Waka and learning the culture and customs, too. Her experiences with friendship, family, alone-ness, and cultural identity are so relatable as someone with mixed heritage. I found her experiences of self growth painful, awkward, beautiful, and joyful. The relationship Waka has with her grandmother while complicated, was so profound and moving. I cried, a lot, at the end.
Profile Image for Ashley.
136 reviews6 followers
January 17, 2021
Waka T. Brown recounts the 5 month journey she went on as a 6th grader to her family's home country of Japan in this nuanced and beautiful middle grade memoir. This book also serves as Brown's debut book, although with its rich descriptions and melodic pacing, it certainly feels as through the author has been writing for a very long time.

Waka is sent to live with her grandmother after her parents show concern in her ability to communicate in Japanese. As a first generation American, Waka is caught between the American culture in which she lives in and the Japanese culture her family is from. As to be expected of a 12 year old who has been told she will miss out on part of 6th and 7th grade to go to a public Japanese school, Waka is initially upset at her parent's decision to send her to her grandmother in Japan. When I first read the book, I was expecting the story to fall in place accordingly: Waka dislikes Japan and feels ostracized, but then makes friends, learns to love her grandmother, and then does not want to leave. What I received was a story that was much more nuanced. While Waka learns more about her grandmother and makes a few friends, there is an even greater focus on how Waka herself grows from the journey. Her friendships and connections made in Japan are realistic and memorable. Waka's teacher in Japan is patient and caring, making Waka feel welcome despite unruly students in the class. Children form cliques with each other, and Waka must decide who she truly wants to consider a friend on her own. There are plenty of relationships in the book to think about and delve into, and the book definitely feels true and not-larger-than-life.

The most interesting relationship in the book is certainly between Waka and her grandmother. Waka hears stories about her grandmother being harsh and favoring boys before she is even on Japanese soil. Waka is unsure about the rumors as well as being away from other people her age at home. When Waka arrives, their relationship is often shown with awkward silences and downtime. As the story progresses, Waka slowly learns more about her grandmother's life. Waka and her grandmother's relationship are not perfect. Some exchanges lead to arguments and hurt feelings. Despite this, there is an undeniable (yet unspoken) love the two foster for each other throughout the book. This relationship felt incredibly realistic considering the personalities of the author and her grandmother, and I appreciated that the complexity of the relationship wasn't simplified for a happier middle grade ending.

Other aspects that I appreciated was the fact the story did not follow a traditional three act structure like Westernized novels typically are. Instead, Brown lets the story meander and float like the flower petals mentioned in the story. Waka is a wandering spirit, trying to make sense of where she fits in the world. While I was Away is a lovely and realistic story of a girl who learns more about her language, culture, and family by returning to her parents' home country. As life changing as a 5 month journey to another country would be for anyone, it doesn't answer all of Waka's struggles and questions about the world around her. The story ends with Waka returning home to America, with a sense that she is changed, and must still decide who she is.

If this book peaks your interest, please make sure to preorder this book or pick it up at your local bookstore on January 26th, 2021. Thank you to NetGalley and HarperCollins for giving me an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Kate.
Author 3 books389 followers
November 22, 2021
A tender and moving memoir. The portrait of a coming-of-age summer is made that much more heartfelt by the push and pull of family expectations. I read this in a single sitting, entirely immersed in Waka's world. Absolutely beautiful. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Alan.
90 reviews7 followers
March 23, 2021
I absolutely adored this book. I'm sure I also would have loved it as a child, but wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to adult readers as well.

Funny, moving, and deftly written, I couldn't put it down this morning when I was supposed to be working on my own writing. My friend who I co-work with actually messaged me to make sure I was all right because I hadn't messaged her--all because I was so caught up in Waka's story.

I really feel like While I Was Away will be a delight for anyone, but as someone who grew up as an immigrant, this story spoke to me on another level, I think, and should appeal to adults and children similarly caught between two (or more!) identities and places.

An absolutely beautiful book.
Profile Image for Becky.
5,193 reviews102 followers
October 26, 2021
First sentence: One wintry January afternoon, my mom said to me, "Waka, chotto sentaku tatande yo."

Premise/plot: While I Was Away is a memoir. The author recalls her sixth grade year--1984--in which she's sent abroad [for five months] to Japan to live with her grandmother and attend a [Japanese] school. Her parents want her to be able to speak, read, and write Japanese. She'll miss all of summer vacation, and the first few months of her seventh grade year. She'll know what she's missing out on in Kansas...but she has no idea what will await her in Tokyo.

My thoughts: I really loved this one. I thought it was a fascinating read. So much depth and substance. So much food for thought. It packs in a lot of emotions and feelings, and so many experiences. I think my favorite part was seeing the development of relationships. She's leaving her family and friends behind in Kansas. She's going to live with her strict grandmother. She'll be visiting aunts, uncles, and cousins. She'll be attending school and meeting a lot of people her own age. To see her build relationships--to struggle to build relationships--to make a life for herself and find her place to belong...it was just a beautiful thing to see. And one we don't often get in such great detail.
Profile Image for Josie.
429 reviews15 followers
February 3, 2022
When twelve-year-old Waka’s parents suspect she can’t understand basic Japanese, they send her from her home in America to Japan, to spend several months living with her Grandmother and attend school in Tokyo.
This memoir was such a great read in that it was a rare insight into cultural difference. I found this a unique and insightful read, and there were many heart warming as well as heart wrenching parts to what played out. This felt like sitting down with the author over some tea and hearing her childhood story.
Profile Image for Trisha.
1,936 reviews97 followers
January 23, 2022
Exquisite memoir that navigates the space of the loneliness of other and learning who you are when separated from everything that is familiar.

Profile Image for Becky B.
7,492 reviews94 followers
August 18, 2021
When Waka was finishing up 6th grade, she ignored her mom asking in Japanese for her to help fold laundry. Her mom decided her Japanese must be suffering horribly from life in the US, and so she sets up for Waka to go to public school in Japan for 5 months from the end of 6th grade into her 7th grade year. Waka is horrified. She's going to have to live with her strict grandmother who even adults in the family avoid. She's sure she is going to be horribly behind in reading and writing, and she's afraid she won't have any friends. But as the months progress, Waka finds happy surprises in store, and much to learn from her time in Japan.

I really enjoyed this memoir of an immigrant kid trying to navigate the tightrope walk between cultures. As an expat myself and working in a school that serves lots of kids who go between cultures all the time, I really identified with a lot of the things Waka experienced and I know my students will too. There are definite bittersweet aspects to her story, especially the way things ended with her grandmother, but I appreciate her honesty there. I listened to much of this on audiobook and found that very helpful to know how to pronounce the transliterated Japanese included correctly. Highly recommended to immigrant kids and third culture kids, and teachers who work with kids learning in a language other than their first one.

Notes on content: I don't remember any language issues. No sexual content. The death of relatives in the past comes up, nothing gory though. Waka's teacher in Japan hits students, which she finds startling and doesn't approve of. Waka also mentions that the Japanese teacher smokes during breaks (this is the 80s).
Profile Image for Diane White.
261 reviews
March 11, 2021
This autobiography reads like a middle grade fiction book. I will review in that way. The characters are well developed and the plot moves at a reasonable pace. I liked the relationship that develops between Waka and her grandmother. Even the flaws in the relationship. I also liked how Waka learned that losing herself to a group was not worth it.
Profile Image for Reem Faruqi.
Author 10 books152 followers
January 27, 2022
Looooved WHILE I WAS AWAY by @W_T_Brown . The humor throughout the book was hilarious and heartfelt while Waka adapts to Japanese life...

but I wasn't expecting the sadness & gut wrenching emotions that came together in the most gorgeous way. Wow. & I loved Obaasama. My heart!

This story will stay with me for a long time.

Profile Image for Ms.Gaye.
630 reviews12 followers
May 28, 2021
Imagine how you might feel going from a straight-A student to one who is looked upon as a “dumb foreigner” and being in situations where you don’t know the social rules. Waka finds herself in this situation when she is sent to live with her strict grandmother in Japan. Ages 10-14
Profile Image for Liz.
469 reviews2 followers
July 28, 2021
This was a lovely narrative non-fiction story of Waka's time in Japan as a young student. I loved visiting Japan and hope to go back again someday!
8 reviews
November 3, 2022
"While I Was Away" truly wowed me. The fact that it's an autobiography WOWED me even more. It's probably one of the few books that I was sad to finish reading. The connection I felt with Waka (narrator) allowed me to empathize throughout the book.

The book itself won the 2021 Freeman Book Award, which honors East and Southeast Asian Titles for Children and Young Adults. The author, Waka T. Brown won the 2019 Elgin Heinz Outstanding Teacher Award. This award honors top teachers who have dedicated their career to furthering mutual understanding between Americans and Japanese.

Throughout this book, Waka. T Brown is able to communicate the themes of friendship, self-discovery, identity, and growth through the narration of her 12 year old self "Waka." Waka is Japanese, born and raised in America. One day, her parents decided that since Waka is not fluent and cannot understand the basic Japanese they speak to her, it was decided that she'd move to Japan to go to school there for a few months. To make it worse, Waka has to live with her Grandma (Obaasma), who she believes she has to keep her guard up around. Waka is completely torn that she has to leave her home, her best friends, and miss her school. She is convinced that she will hate Japan, and NEVER be thankful for being sent there. Waka experiences cliques, fake friendships, bullies, failures with learning Japanese, and changes in culture. By the end of the book, Waka is able to master Kanji (a system of Japanese writing, using Chinese characters), find her true friends, and develop a better relationship with her grandma. Waka becomes thankful towards her mom, which she thought she'd never be.

The author's literary craft is what allows readers to truly grasp the main themes in this book and empathize. Brown does an AMAZING job of letting readers know how it feels to be a 12-year old girl left in another country. She also does a great job in allowing us to realize how she felt after she was able to make those true friendships and "master" Japanese.

From reading this book, I learned that in the moment everything could feel like it's falling apart, but once you find at least one motivating factor, or you form close friendships with just one person, it will force you to keep trying and to want to grow. In the end, the goal you reach and the lessons you've learned will all be worth it. This is a great book for 4th-6th graders, and even middle, high school, and college students to read because even though the age is centered around much younger students, the lessons learned can benefit any age group.

"While I Was Away" is completely free of bias. It encourages readers to be able to find their identity and grow from your past. This book should most definitely be assigned in schools, and should be read out of school.
Profile Image for Dan Allbery.
310 reviews3 followers
February 18, 2022
Each individual has certain watershed moments in their life. For Waka Brown, being sent to Japan as a pre-teen was one of those moments. As stated in her Author's Note, she can clearly remember many of these forty year-old moments just like yesterday. These people and this time definitely imprinted on her soul.

While I Was Away is a middle grade memoir that provides insight into being bicultural. Brown experienced that "in-between" feeling many often reference--am I American? Am I Japanese? I'm not sure there is always a clear answer, but reading others' experiences may help.

I took interest in this book as a teacher of many Japanese students and as a person who lived in Japan. The linguistic and cultural references made me frequently say, "I remember that." The coldness of soba noodles, the sound of the cicada, the chaos of the train station. All those moments were mental field trips for me. However, if a reader doesn't have any ties to Japan, the story may come across as slow. Dare I say it is a bit dry at times? But...if you get this into the hands of a Japanese kid, or someone wanting to know more about Japanese culture, this could be a win. It reads a bit young. Recommended for GR 4-6.
Profile Image for Christina.
171 reviews4 followers
February 16, 2021
Animated bookstagram: https://www.instagram.com/p/CLXquWdAZ...

Revisiting the 1980’s and recalling memories from journals and letters, Waka T. Brown’s memoir, WHILE I WAS AWAY, vividly tells her story as a twelve-year-old navigating five months in Japan attending school to learn the Japanese language and alphabet. Waka learns so much more than this of course as she stays with her grandmother who has her own, difficult story to tell. I enjoyed the exploration of their relationship and the honest feelings Waka shares about trying to please her Obaasama and show respect while following her strict rules. Brown’s experiences in her new school had plenty of relatable moments of friendship drama and the Japanese writing system was fascinating to me. I appreciated the examples in the book as Waka was challenged with writing and reading it under the high expectations of her teacher. Waka narrates her story with sincerity (with humor as well) and readers will be empathetic to her anxieties and struggles to find acceptance into two cultures. Enlightening and heartfelt, WHILE I WAS AWAY is a special coming of age story about family and connection that spans the globe.
Profile Image for Hwee Goh.
Author 19 books21 followers
February 7, 2022
The year Japanese-American Waka Tanaka turned 12, her mum decided to send her back to Japan for five months, in the hope of immersing her in enough Japanese so she could become conversant in it.

It was to be a bittersweet time - plucked out of her straight-A midwestern life to coping in a totally Japanese environment, kanji, ink stones and all.

Waka was to live with obaasan, her maternal grandmother and the way the two navigate life around each other, was the most heart-hitting for me. It was a nuanced, distant, love that sent on some tears at the end.

This is an empowering middle grade nonfiction memoir that takes a young reader through Waka’s initial bewilderment at the cultural differences, to her determination to fight through friendships, her grandmother’s own pain as well as succeeding in class.

“By being away, I traveled to realms in my mind and my heart and soul that I didn’t even know were there.”

This book is for young readers who enjoy being immersed in the ins and outs of living and going to school in Japan, and Waka’s candid,humorous, writing makes it an experiential one.

Thank you, @times.reads for sending me this book, I am the richer for this experience!
Profile Image for Barbara.
13.1k reviews271 followers
March 29, 2021
This one is a 3.5 for me. Mining her own experiences as a middle grader, author Waka T. Brown provides readers with a unique take on cultural assimilation. When her mother realizes that Waka knows hardly any Japanese, she decides to send her to Japan to live for several months. She will live with her grandmother and attend school in Tokyo. Waka has visited Japan before, but she's never been there on her own without her parents, and she makes many basic mistakes once she starts school. She is confused about adding -chan or -san to names, barely knows any kanji, and reads at a very basic level, far below those of her new classmates. Accustomed to being one of the top students in her class back home, it's hard for Waka to now be considered not very smart by her new classmates. She's considered tall and athletic compared to her classmates, a new experience for Waka. She is befriended by some girls in her class, but then she also must contend with deciding which group to join and some bullying. The author provides an excellent window into what schools were like in Japan in 1984 when the story is set as well as little touches such as having the school supplies, including special paper. It's a good thing she has a caring teacher in Mr. Adachi since he spends extra time with her as she tries to master reading in Japanese and he fends off some of her bullies. Despite her reluctance to go to Japan and lose out on all her summer fun with her friends back in Kansas, Waka makes the best of her situation, trying to bond with her grandmother. Obaasama is hard to understand, and it isn't clear if her personality is just judgmental or if she has become that way through life experiences. There are a few moments of connection, most notably over a sewing project, but full appreciation of both Grandmother and Granddaughter never occurs, and Waka resent the way her grandmother has treated her. Readers may be curious as I was to learn more about the elderly woman who seemed to want a connection but be unable to bridge the gap between her and Waka. The book is fascinating in how it explores Waka's changing identity, and there were passages that struck a strong chord with me. As she leaves her grandmother's house and sees tears in the woman's eyes, Waka recalls that "I didn't look back, not once, because a sob had ripped from my throat as the seams that held by Japanese and American heart together ripped apart too" (p. 290-291). Overwhelmed with guilt for leaving her grandmother to her lonely existence and having learned to love her despite the way she behaved, Waka also says, "Maybe I also wept because part of me had an inkling about what might happen while I was away" (p. 291), suddenly aware that she might never see her grandmother again. Ah, that departure from Japan was heartbreaking, vividly demonstrating how hard it is to feel as though part of you is missing whenever you are away from a certain place. The cognitive dissonance experienced by Waka is only exacerbated by her friends' reaction when she returns to school. They want to hear about her time abroad, but they also have been living their lives in a new grade. Rich with cultural details and a strong female voice, this book will appeal to many middle graders who will enjoy comparing and contrasting educational practices between the two countries and perhaps becoming more empathetic toward immigrants in their own schools since this book effectively details the reverse immigration process to the one typically told in most children's literature today.
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2,619 reviews72 followers
August 23, 2021
This powerful memoir takes place in 1984, when the author was sent from Kansas to Japan to live with family for 5 months because her mother felt she wasn't acting Japanese enough. Based on her memories as well as journals and letters written at the time, the range of emotions are real and raw. Waka attended 5 months of 6th grade in Japanese school, and did in fact accomplish her mother's goals of reading, writing, and speaking Japanese fluently. She also connected with her cousins and grandmother. She also had to deal with missing her friends and family, feeling like an outsider, being teased, and of course the friend drama that is pervasive in middle school everywhere. Readers will connect with Waka and be drawn into her story. Highly recommended for grades 4 & up.
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