Hello, friends! Welcome to our first interview of 2022!
Find a comfy seat and relax because it’s time to Kick Back with Kick-butt!
Today we’re chatting with Waka T. Brown, the author of
DREAM, ANNIE, DREAM
As the daughter of immigrants who came to America for a better life, Annie Inoue was raised to dream big. And at the start of seventh grade, she’s channeling that irrepressible hope into becoming the lead in her school play.
So when Annie lands an impressive role in the production of The King and I, she’s thrilled . . . until she starts to hear grumbles from her mostly white classmates that she only got the part because it’s an Asian play with Asian characters. Is this all people see when they see her? Is this the only kind of success they’ll let her have–one that they can tear down or use race to belittle?
Disheartened but determined, Annie channels her hurt into a new dream: showing everyone what she’s made of.
Waka T. Brown, author of While I Was Away, delivers an uplifting coming-of-age story about a Japanese American girl’s fight to make space for herself in a world that claims to celebrate everyone’s differences but doesn’t always follow through.
Let’s talk to this splendid author about her wonderful book!
This is Waka. Everyone say, “Hi, Waka!”
Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Waka! Tell us about yourself!
I’ve loved stories forever, but my first foray into writing was in screenplays. I received a lot of “encouraging rejections” for them over the years—which kept me going—but I never had a feature picked up. A few years ago, I had a 10-minute short film produced, but that was also around the time I decided to write While I Was Away, which resulted in my participation in Pitch Wars, then finding my agent, and then landing my first book deal. I also have three boys, a husband, and a naughty but loveable pup, and live with them in the Portland, Oregon area.
Cool! Always love to meet a fellow Pitch Wars alum!
What was the inspiration behind DREAM, ANNIE, DREAM?
My first book While I Was Away explored my experiences in Japan as a Japanese American. While Dream, Annie, Dream is fiction, in some ways it’s the flip side of the coin to my first novel, in that it explores what it was like to be one of the only Japanese Americans in Topeka, Kansas during a time where there was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment (related to trade friction) throughout the United States.
Even though it’s a story that takes place in the 1980s, I found that there were a lot of parallels with what is still happening today in terms of microaggressions and misunderstandings about what is good/bad representation. As with many current events, the roots of what is happening can be found in history and so that is how the idea for Dream, Annie, Dream was born.
What were three interesting things you discovered while working on DREAM, ANNIE, DREAM?
I loved conducting my research for Dream, Annie, Dream! I have many friends who are children of first-generation Asian immigrants, and through them I learned a lot of their parents’ stories and how they ended up in the United States. Some were similar to my own parents’ path; some were quite different and really quite surprising! But the majority of them were able to immigrate here due to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, something that I had never learned about growing up.
I had also read the TIME Magazine article about “Those Asian American Whiz Kids” when it was first published in 1987, but when I went back and read it again for my research, it was fascinating to revisit how Asian Americans were perceived at that time (and how little has changed).
In addition, it was interesting to delve more deeply into how Asians were portrayed in film, the prevalence of casting non-Asian actors in Asian roles, and to analyze some of the problematic themes in the musical The King and I.
For our aspiring writers out there, what do you think are some of the key elements to capturing that ‘just right’ middle grade voice?
Since I came from screenwriting, when I first wrote While I Was Away, I basically gave myself a crash course in middle grade writing through reading a whole bunch of middle grade books, and it was so much fun. Reading these recently published middle grade novels reminded me of why I fell in love with stories as a kid, and it was like I was playing catch up in the best sort of way. Also, I had very kind mentors and more experienced authors offering me writing tips along the way. Finally, my two younger boys are squarely in middle grade territory, and they often regale me with some very eye-opening facts about kids their age!
Oh, excellent! That must have been informative AND entertaining! 😀
If you could transport your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?
Hmm… this is a hard one. Part of me would like to transport Annie into a contemporary novel in which characters are used to and welcome diversity, but another part of me would like to transport her back to Prince Edward Island where she could be friends with Anne Shirley. They’re both dreamers, feel like they don’t quite fit in, and don’t let much stand in their way. I loved Anne of Green Gables when I was a little girl and identified with her a lot even though I’m not a red-haired orphan living in the late 1800s. I really hope all kids will find some aspect of Annie Inoue’s story to identify with in the same way.
Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?
Middle grade is such an honest but intense age in which kids are navigating that transition from childhood—from a time in which parents are their world—into one in which they have more choices and can be more independent. In hindsight, it was also one of the most difficult times for me growing up (and I know for many other people!) so, if there’s anything my words can do to make the time a little easier to get through, that makes me happy.
Any hints about your next book project?
Well, the book I’m currently working on is The Very Unfortunate Wish of Melony Yoshimura (Summer 2023) which is a contemporary re-telling of the Japanese folktale “The Melon Princess and the Amanjaku.” It’s a bit different from my first two books in that it’s contemporary magical realism. But, like my first two stories, at its center is a spirited, imperfect girl trying to find her way.
Sounds amazing! Looking forward to it!
What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?
I guess that I can write? Over the years I’ve received so many rejections, and while some have been kind and encouraging, I think subconsciously part of me believed maybe I was receiving all these rejections because I just couldn’t write. Also, when I read other authors’ works, I’m constantly in awe of their prose, creativity, etc. so you could say I have a healthy (unhealthy?) dose of imposter syndrome. So, it’s been surprising in the best way when people reach out and let me know that they’ve enjoyed my stories. It’s something that I always hoped for, and it’s still hard for me to believe sometimes that I’m a published author.
What are you reading right now?
I’m about to dive into Axie Oh’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea.
What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?
I think all of us experience those times where we encounter obstacles in our writing, whether it’s a plot hole, or we’re just floundering around in the mucky middle, and we just feel “stuck.” So, my favorite advice that I’ve received is so simple, but deserves repeating—“You can fix it later.” Just keep on writing and know that the magic often happens in the revisions.
YES! Such an important thing to remember. Well said.
Thank you for joining us, Waka!
Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out DREAM, ANNIE, DREAM!
It’s on shelves now!
Click here to enter to win a copy of DREAM, ANNIE, DREAM!
Contest closes Friday, April 22nd at 11:59 pm EST
Thanks for reading!