While I Was Away

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Modern Age

While I Was Away
Author: Brown, Waka T.
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Time Period: Modern Age
Time Frame: 1984
Geographic Area: Asia
Country: Japan
Topics: Japanese Culture
Genre: Fiction
Reading Age: Middle Grade, Upper Middle Grade
Format: Chapter Book
Published: 2021

World History > Modern Age > 1980s

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?

Emily's Review

This might be one of my favorite books of 2021. I love reading about different cultures, and Japan has always been one of my favorite places to read about. So this middle-grade memoir was right up my alley. When Waka's parents become concerned that she isn't fluent in Japanese, they decide to send her to Japan for 5 months to live with her grandmother and study in a Japanese school. At first, Waka is completely against this idea, but as she adjusts to living in a new country, she learns more about her family and discovers that this wasn't such a terrible way to spend the summer after all.

The writing in this book was so great - I really felt like I was right there with Waka, experiencing 1980s era Japanese culture. From the food to stationery shopping, to the challenges she faced in school, it was endlessly fascinating to read. I loved reading about Waka's relationship with her grandmother - it was a very honest portrayal of trying to bond with a relative that is emotionally distant. Waka herself was an endearing character - she was put into some difficult situations, and I loved seeing how she worked through them.

I found this story riveting - it was truly an un-put-downable read!

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