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This site is a resource for teachers and librarians for my middle grade novels, Somewhere Among (2016) and Beyond Me (2020) Caitlyn Dlouhy Books Atheneum , Simon & Schuster. My 25 years as a foreign wife in a multi-generational home in Japan inspired Somewhere Among and my experience of the 2011 earthquake and aftershocks was the basis for Beyond Me. My bicultural children helped when I started my photoblog for children, Here and There Japan, in 2006. Teachers follow me on Facebook at Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu and Twitter at AnnieDonwerth_C

BEYOND ME June 2020

Last February, I was so thankful to have finished the final galleys of my second verse novel, Beyond Me, based on our experience of the aftershocks in west Tokyo from the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of 2011. After 3 years of remembering, researching and writing it, we were advised to self-isolate for COVID before being quarantined in March.

After these 4+ months of going only to the grocery and hardware store, walking twice to the Botanical Gardens and riding up Mt. Fuji yesterday (for our 30th anniversary) I can still hold strong to the things I wrote about and what got me through Tokyo’s month of aftershocks; family, friends and pets, and tending Earth (for me gardening).

Here as in the Acknowledgements, I would like to thank my children for skyping me away from the manuscript, to Papa and friends Mari Boyle, Kathy Schmitz, Kristin Ormiston and Cam Sato for pulling me away to do fun things; to SCBWI Japan’s advisors Holly Thompson, Naomi Kojima, Mariko Nagai, Avery Fischer Udagawa for always organizing an active calendar of events for us; to Mariko Nagai, Mari Boyle, Avery Fischer Udagawa, Emina Udagawa, and Cam Sato for reading and commenting on the story, to Mr. and Mrs. Toida for feeding our neighborhood and allowing me to photograph their work, fields and vegetables over the years, to the Chikamatsu family for guiding me through ups and downs, to our dogs for grounding me and to our rescued cats for teaching me cat culture. Letters and conversations about Somewhere Among from readers, family and friends, especially Nancy Rinehart, The Austin Kirwans, and my mother kept me going back to the table to finish Beyond Me.

I am grateful to editor Caitlyn Dlouhy, Atheneum Simon & Schuster, the S&S design team, and to agent Holly McGhee for making it all possible.

I had been afraid the subject might be too heavy for COVID19 times. Then in May 2020, Booklist said it was “an essential read” for tweens. These are different times.

My hope is that there will be future middle grade novels and translations centered on the hardest hit areas of the disasters of March 2011. There’s so much to learn.

Beyond Me is my second published love letter to Japan, to my American-Japanese children and their father, and to my Japanese in-laws. I can envision writing only one more book set in Japan, a memoir for adult readers. But that might take a while. I am pulled to write children’s stories set in a faraway land, the United States prior to 1984.

description of Beyond Me

Set in west Tokyo during The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011. Maya, 11, is finishing fifth grade, preparing for choir performances and going to cram school when the earthquake knocks Japan off its feet. She and her family are unharmed. Earth keeps moving, but life comes to a halt.

Everything is up in the air. Maya grounds herself by watching and helping her Great-grandfather farm. She finds other ways to calm herself and to help. Based on our experience of the aftershocks in west Tokyo.

Simon & Schuster, Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, Atheneum, June 2020.

reviews of Beyond Me

An Inspiration

Toida-san started farming when he was seventeen years old. His family owned land from their house (north of ours) all the way down to Tama River. Before World War II, the land where our house now stands was an orchard of mulberry trees for silk worms. There are no mulberry trees around here, but I actually saw a silk moth in the garden here thirty years ago. It was the first time I had ever seen one.

Toida-san and his wife farmed the fields behind our house until he retired at 90 years old. I watched them for years from our windows and roof garden. After I got a digital camera in 2006, he gave me permission to get closer to take photos. I photographed every season before he retired. I used the photos for reference for Beyond Me. I will post more photos here. It is bittersweet to go through them and it is hard to choose among them. Meanwhile, if you are interested, check posts at Here and There Japan under the categories “urban farming” and “vegetables.”

I miss watching Toida-san and his wife work in the fields. I miss eating their fresh vegetables. The farmer who rents their fields does not sell his vegetables locally.

By the way, the photo above is the only time I saw him take a break in the field. And this one is the first of two times he posed for me.

 

 

Birds of BEYOND ME

I see birds everywhere in west Tokyo. They are in my garden and in the farmer’s fields outside our windows. Before the pandemic, I walked to the grocery store or to the station every day so I would see them in the trees along the street, in garden trees, and on buildings. I would take the camera with me (before iphones) and I would take walks just to photograph them. So naturally, birds have shown up in my writing.

Click on my photos to look more closely, but also click on the link in red below them to see photos at Cornell Lab’s eBird. Be sure to click on “Listen” on their page. You can hear what I hear almost every day.

 

White-cheeked Starlings (Spodiopsar cineraceus) come to the fields to forage for insects.

White-cheeked Starling, Mukudori ムクドリMay 8, 2012

One always followed or led our neighborhood farmer as he tilled his field. The same one every day? Every year? I am not sure. The farmer has retired and I still see starlings. But none follow the farmer who rents the field. Big flocks of them sit on the wires every fall. This photo is our retired farmer following a starling.

White-cheeked Starling, Mukudori ムクドリ April 19, 2012

White-cheeked Starling

 

I was thinking of Chinese Hwamei (Garrulax canorus) for the bird that disrupts Maya’s class choir practice. I hear them but have only seen one. High in a tree at sunset, this bird sang its heart out. (Made my heart sing.) Sadly, this photo is not good.

Chinese Hwamei, Gabichou ガビチョウ Mogusen Park March 8, 2016

Chinese Hwamei

 

Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus) are here through all the seasons. They are hard to photograph. They move fast in a flock.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Suzume スズメ park April 12, 2012

Eurasian Tree Sparrows

 

Brown-eared Bulbuls (Hypsipetes amaurotis) visit our garden in the winter and eat the mikan or apple I put in the tree. They also eat the last of the farmer’s broccoli.

Brown-eared Bulbuls, Hiyodori ひよどり February 18, 2011

They also shred the blossoms of the magnolia trees along the main street.

Brown-eared Bulbul in a Magnolia tree, Hiyodori ひよどり   March 11, 2013

Brown-eared Bulbul

 

Rock Pigeons (Columba livia) are also called Common Pigeons. Our neighborhood barber’s wife fed a flock of about ten before they closed their shop. The Rock Pigeons spent their days in the tree lot next to the barber shop all year round. I miss them. Here is one sitting on an air conditioning unit.

Rock Pigeon or Common Pigeon, Kawarabato カワラバト neighborhood November 22, 2018

Rock Pigeon

 

White Wagtails (Motacilla alba lugens) zig and zag and wag through the farmer’s fields every season. In a recent interview with the Audubon Society, Jane Goodall said she liked Robins and Wagtails. I like them too. Wagtails are fun to watch. There is another wagtail that visits the fields called the Japanese Wagtail (Motacilla grandis). I don’t see them as often.

White Wagtail, Hakusekirei ハクセキレイ March 22, 2014

White Wagtail

 

Oriental Turtle Doves (Streptopelia orientalis) never come to our garden anymore after a crow got a turtle dove nest. They sit on fences or in trees. There are usually two turtle doves together. This one is always along. On the day of this photo, a Eurasian Sparrow was sitting on the fence nearby.

Oriental Turtle Dove, Kiji-bato キジバト April 10, 2014

Oriental Turtle Dove

 

Japanese Bush Warblers (Horornis diphone) are heard but rarely seen. They are a sign of spring. I don’t have a photo of one! Here is a photo of a wagashi dessert shaped like a Japanese Bush Warbler.

Japanese Bush Warbler, Uguisu うぐいす

Japanese Bush Warbler

 

Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) nest on houses and store fronts. We’ve never had a barn swallow on our house. As I walk to the grocery store in April to July, barn swallows might duck under the awning of the neighborhood Chinese restaurant, the laundromat and  the florist and the bank near the station. The skies above the shopping street get busy!

Here is a description from The Japan Times by Rowan Hooper.

Barn Swallows, Tsubame ツバメ at florist shop April 25, 2007

Barn Swallows

 

Large-billed Crows (Corvus macrorhynchos japonensis) come to the fields. Families come at the end of summer and stay until the beginning of summer. I love watching them. They don’t always come or stay in a group. Mostly they come alone or with another to scout for food. This one posed for me in a tree across from the farmer’s field. I have many videos of them.

Large-billed Crow, Hashibuto-garasu ハシブトガラス Most people call them Karasu カラス. December 17, 2014

Large-billed Crow

 

I have many photos of birds dating back to 2006. Recently, I started uploading them with the time, date and details to Cornell  Lab’s online database, e-Bird. The data may help scientists know bird populations and  bird patterns.

(My list isn’t public yet. I am still working on it.)

 

The Cat

All along, I knew there would be a cat in Beyond Me. From the beginning I knew the cat would black, but I started thinking about how a three-colored cat is considered lucky. I decided the cat would be black. With a red collar and bell. Later, as I was going through my farming photos researching the seasons of the vegetable fields I found this photo.

It was the first and only time I saw that cat. He was sitting next to taro. The photo was taken March 2012, the year after The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

Somewhere Among

Set in Japan 2001. Ema is an eleven-year-old American-Japanese girl; bi-cultural, bilingual and bi-national with an American mother and a Japanese father.

Ema has lived in Japan all her life, has attended Japanese public school, has done well and has friends that she has to leave for a few months because of her mother’s difficult pregnancy. She and her parents go across Tokyo to stay at her grandparents’ house.

Ema’s grandmother takes care of them and makes sure that Ema knows the finer points of Japanese culture. Ema is miserable trying to keep peace between her grandmother and mother,  to keep cool in the summer heat, and to keep up her studies.

She finishes the schoolwork for the semester under her grandmother’s nose and in front of the television. It is always on; her grandfather never misses the news. Things heat up even more for Ema when a bully at the neighborhood school that she has to attend in the fall makes her life miserable as well.

Waiting for the sibling she has always wanted, being with her Japanese grandfather, receiving phone calls from her American grandparents, and making a new friend make the time bearable until all is threatened when the towers go down in New York.

Click on the publisher’s page for information about the book.

Writing Somewhere Among

I didn’t set out to write about 9-11.

At the time of the earthquake and tsunami March 11, 2011, Japan’s 9-11, I was working on a middle grade prose novel set in Texas, my home state. The earth rocked our Tokyo house for months afterwards. The damaged nuclear plant threatened our air, food, and water.

Leaving Japan was not an option. We had been living with my in-laws for over twenty years, one child was in university, and the other was about to start Japanese high school. Who could leave and come back?

Health issues, an ageing mother-in-law, and pets made it impossible to go to the area to volunteer. I tried working on the Texas novel and sent out a lifeline by paying for a critique for it. Survival mode took its toll and I eventually had to put it aside.

I needed to ground myself in Japan.

I wasn’t able to write about the aftershocks, the fleeing foreign residents, and the radiation crisis of the nuclear plants. I couldn’t bear reading, hearing or seeing anything more about it. I had to disengage to lighten my heart.

In troubled times, we turn to family and relationships and, sometimes, to the past for comfort. I started writing tidbits, the observations and connections I had made over the years here, things that rooted me here, things about living here within a Japanese family for over twenty years:

the old wooden house Great-grandfather built after World War II that leaned in typhoons, jerked in earthquakes, but stood its ground;

the one-room lifestyle we had upstairs in the old house before we built a new house in its place;

the palm tree that soared above its rooftop but now watches over us from outside the dining room window;

the loving relationships my children had with all their family, and

the memories of my children’s Japanese public school experience.

A dozen or more short pieces, poems and memories quickly evolved into a story from a child’s point of view. The first draft came fast.

I was still dealing with the grief of the earthquake and tsunami. It was still hard to trust the earth beneath our feet. Hard to trust the roof over our heads. Hard to trust the air we breathed. The story did not turn out to be about any of that.

But it didn’t turn out light-hearted. It had become Somewhere Among, a middle grade novel set in another difficult time, 2001. The story highlights the history, anniversaries, and tragedies my two families’ countries have shared. It is about reconciliation. About going on. About finding peace within.

It is built from research of events, weather, and NASA before and in 2001. The story includes some true instances from our school and family life. However, the Japanese grandmother in particular is not my children’s grandmother. And my children never fell behind in their studies.

But we do appreciate sky watching. We’ve met more friends than bullies, and once, while exiting a train, a woman, seeing I was having a bad day, placed a peace doll in my hand.

It still brightens our hearts.

Writing Somewhere Among

I didn’t set out to write about 9-11.

At the time of the earthquake and tsunami March 11, 2011, I was working on a middle grade prose novel set in Texas, my home state. The earth rocked our Tokyo house for months afterwards. The damaged nuclear plant threatened Japan’s air, food, and water.

Leaving Japan was not an option. We were rooted here. We had lived with my Japanese in-laws for over twenty years, one child was in university, and the other was about to start Japanese high school. Who could leave and come back?

Health issues, an ageing mother-in-law, and pets made it impossible to go to the area to volunteer. I tried working on the Texas novel and sent out a lifeline by paying for a critique for it. Survival mode took its toll and I eventually had to put it aside.

I needed to ground myself in Japan.

Gardening and photographing nature and our neighborhood farmer had always been grounding. Writing, too.

I wasn’t able to write about the aftershocks, the fleeing foreign residents, and the radiation crisis of the nuclear plants. I couldn’t bear reading, hearing or seeing anything more about it. I had to disengage to lighten my heart.

In troubled times, we turn to family and relationships and, sometimes, to the past for comfort. I started writing tidbits, the observations and connections I had made over the years here, things that rooted me here, things about living here within a Japanese family for over twenty years:

the old wooden house Great-grandfather built after World War II that leaned in typhoons, jerked in earthquakes, but stood its ground;

the one-room lifestyle we had upstairs in the old house before we built a new house in its place;

the palm tree that soared above its rooftop but now watches over us from outside the new dining room window;

the loving relationships my children had with all their family, and

the memories of my children’s Japanese public school experience.

A dozen or more short pieces, poems and memories quickly evolved into a story from a child’s point of view. The first draft came fast.

I was still dealing with the grief of the earthquake and tsunami. It was still hard to trust the earth beneath our feet. Hard to trust the roof over our heads. Hard to trust the air we breathed.  The story did not turn out to be about any of that. But it didn’t turn out lighthearted.

It had become Somewhere Among, a middle grade novel set in another difficult time, 2001. I shielded our children, then 9 and 5, from the TV coverage of the attacks, but the TV was always on downstairs at their grandparents. The nine-year-old actually created a tower made of yogurt bottles and bandages for the school’s November 2001 art exhibition.

Somewhere Among highlights the history, anniversaries, and tragedies my two families’ countries have shared. It is about reconciliation. About going on. About finding peace within.

It is built from research of events, weather, and NASA before and in 2001. The story includes some true light-hearted and funny instances from our school and family life. The Japanese grandmother (I was asked to say) is not my children’s grandmother. And my children never fell behind in their studies.

But we do appreciate sky watching. We’ve met more friends than bullies, and once, while exiting a train, a woman, seeing I was having a bad day, placed a peace doll in my hand.

It still brightens our hearts.

posted on THE PIPPIN INSIDER, Pippin Properties, INC. blog

Part 2

Why verse?

A reason for poetry is never needed! But this story came in poems.

I have written poetry and short stories throughout my life. Writing short feels natural. Perhaps this story initially came fast in the form I am used to, love, and prefer. If poetry is a part of your life, perhaps stories will come that way to you. I never questioned it.

The story fell together and then I began researching, making sure of the timeline and layering more details of events, the weather, foliage, moon phases and NASA. The story has an extensive bibliography. An abridged copy can be found here on this website.

Weaving relationship details and sticking to the timeline made revisions tricky. It was a mind-blowing experience. Thank the copy editor and the editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy!

The historical events are documented by newspaper articles, TV reports, and my photographs. The neighborhood is based on my neighborhood. The clump of trees down the street. The timing of cicadas and swallows. Foliage changes (this is different in different regions). The house is the house we used to live in before we built a new house. (We lived in one room and my in-laws’ section did not and still does not have a chair.) We have always been watchers of the sky.

I took Somewhere Among fully formed (I thought) to a verse novel workshop at the Highlights Foundation in 2012. I learned the basics and had critiques from the instructors, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Sonya Sones, and Linda Oatman High. I met other writers there who read and critiqued it. One attendee read the whole novel!

SCBWI-JAPAN offered a critique by an editor. I signed up, submitting the first 20 pages and a synopsis. Afterwards, I made some revisions. I entered the 2013 Writers League of Texas competition in order to have it critiqued. I submitted a synopsis and first pages. I won the contest and made some revisions after I received the critique. I signed up for a critique at SCBWI-LA in 2013 and Somewhere Among was critiqued by the Adams Literary Agency. I then felt ready to submit it to literary agent Holly McGhee. She asked many questions that led to revisions. Then the editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy even more questions that led to revisions.

The story remained the same, but it became richer with each reader and critique.

Thank you all!

Heiwa no Daitō, The Great Pagoda of Peace

Over the years, I have seen this building rising from the treetops on our way to and from the Narita airport. Though it does not appear in the story of my middle grade novel, Somewhere Among, a rendering of it by Alessandro Gottardo made its way onto the cover.

Its Japanese name is Heiwa no Daitō and its English name is The Great Pagoda of Peace. The two-roof building is a tahōtō, a Japanese structure called a unlike pagodas in other Asian countries. It stands 190 feet high and sits on top of a hill on the grounds of Shinshoji Temple in Narita City. Underneath the ground floor of The Great Pagoda of Peace, a time capsule, scheduled to be opened in 2434, holds messages of peace from 11 world leaders.

A Peace Festival is held each May.

Peace Doll

Over twenty years ago, as I was getting off the train at my station, a Japanese woman handed me the paper doll encased in a plastic sleeve. A slip of paper on the outside says,”May Peace Prevail on Earth.”

We have used it as a Christmas ornament ever since.

I was surprised by the English and have always wondered about it. Was the woman handing out dolls to foreigners she saw on the train? Did she have dolls with the Japanese translation to give to Japanese people? I once found a link to a Japanese group who was giving peace dolls away. I cannot find it now, but it may have been linked to the group who created Peace Poles and Masahisa Goi of Japan.

When I started writing for children, I searched for a way to use this doll in a story. After the 2011 earthquakes and tsunami of Japan, a story found me.  It turned out to be a story set in Japan 2001.

SOMEWHERE AMONG, my first novel, debuted in April 2016.