Interview with Debbi Michiko Florence about SWEET AND SOUR

*Thanks to Adrianna Cuevas for sharing her interview with Debbi

I’m excited to present an amazing author to Middle Grade Book Village! Debbi Michiko Florence’s latest book, Sweet and Sour, is a delightful contemporary middle grade about friendship and shifting relationships.

For as long as she can remember, Mai has spent every summer in Mystic, Connecticut visiting family friends. And hanging out with her best-friend-since-birth, Zach Koyama, was always the best part.
Then two summers ago everything changed. Zach humiliated Mai, proving he wasn’t a friend at all. So when Zach’s family moved to Japan, Mai felt relieved. No more summers together. No more heartache.
But this year, the Koyamas have returned and the family vacation is back on. And if Mai has to spend the summer around Zach, the least she can do is wipe away the memory of his betrayal… by coming up with the perfect plan for revenge!

Only Zach isn’t the boy he used to be, and Mai’s memories of their last fateful summer aren’t the whole truth of what happened between them. Now she’ll have to decide if she can forgive Zach, even if she can never forget.

Let’s learn more about Sweet and Sour with Debbi!

Of the three middle grade characters you’ve created so far- Keiko, Jenna, and Mai- is there one that you think you’re most similar to? Does Mai share any similar traits with you?

I think there is a little of me in every character I write, but I am probably the most like Keiko – a people pleaser who prefers to avoid conflict. As for Mai, we both love birds/birding and BTS. And like Mai, I have, in the past, made assumptions about friends’ actions. I think it’s that whole conflict avoidance thing, but I am making an effort to be better about speaking up.

This is now your third middle grade novel. What would you say characterizes a ‘Debbi Michiko Florence’ book?

My third middle grade novel!!! Such a dream come true to write for middle graders! I think readers of my middle grade books can expect themes of friendship and crushes with Japanese American main characters. Oh, and happy/hopeful endings!

Authors often hear that it’s difficult to have upper middle grade characters. What has been your experience so far writing older adolescent characters? Did you get any pushback from agents or editors wanting you to age them down or push them into the Young Adult space?

Here’s the funny thing – I started out trying to write YA, but was told my voice was too young. And at the time (15+ years ago), it was not as accepted to write about romance in MG. So it is truly a thrill to write for the upper middle grade audience and to be able to explore changing friendships and those first crush/romantic experiences. I haven’t had any pushback from my agent or editor, but I do wish there were a little more wiggle room in the industry/bookstores to write 13-year-old characters  – that seems to be the (imaginary) dividing line that can push a book into YA. 

Mai clearly has the absolute best taste in music. Why did you decide to put BTS in Sweet and Sour?

As I was developing characters for this book, one of the questions I asked about Mai was what kind of music did she like? My daughter was a big fan (ARMY) of BTS and was encouraging me to listen to their music. She even made me a special playlist. So I decided Mai liked them, too. But as I fell in love with BTS and their music, they became a very important part of Mai’s life, too. And then that ending scene (no spoilers) flashed before my eyes – and I knew BTS had to be a bigger part of the overall story.

What’s coming up next for you?

I just finished line edits of my next middle grade, This Is How I Roll, coming out with the Scholastic Wish line in 2023. This is a story about 12-year-old Sana Mikami who dreams of being like her famous sushi chef dad, but not only does he refuse to teach her, he won’t let her hang out while he’s being filmed for a documentary. When she meets a cute boy, Koji Yamada, and he encourages her creativity in the kitchen, the two start making online cooking tutorials. Sana keeps this from her best friend and her parents. But keeping secrets also means lying, and lying can lead to trouble. Writing this book made me hungry! 

Debbi Michiko Florence is the author of middle grade novels Keep It Together, Keiko Carter, a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection and New England Book Award finalist and Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai, starred review from Kirkus, Amazon Best Books, and a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. Her newest novel is Sweet and Sour, publishing in the summer of 2022. She is also the author of three chapter books series including Jasmine Toguchi (JLG selections, the Amelia Bloomer and CCBC Choices lists, and a Cybils Award winner) and co-authored a picture book biography, Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites which received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist.
A former classroom teacher, Debbi has spoken on panels at conferences and book festivals, taught writing workshops for children and adults, and loves doing author visits at schools and libraries. She is on the faculty of The Highlights Foundation.

Before becoming a full-time writer, Debbi was a raptor rehabilitator, outdoor educator, and a zoo educator. A third-generation Japanese American, born and raised in California, Debbi now lives in Connecticut with her husband, rescue dog, and bunny where she writes in her studio, The Word Nest. She enjoys running and hiking, and loves to travel with her husband and daughter. Her favorite foods are sushi, ramen, and chocolate.

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