Teachers Write 7.17.18 Tuesday Quick-Write with Debbi Michiko Florence

It’s time for our Teachers Write Tuesday Quick-Write, and today’s guest author is Debbi Michiko Florence! Debbi is the author of the Jasmine Toguchi chapter book series, about a Japanese American girl. Book 4 in the series, Jasmine Toguchi, Flamingo Keeper (a Junior Library Guild selection) just came out this month. Before Debbi started writing as a career, she worked at a pet store, volunteered as a raptor rehabilitator, interned as a zookeeper’s aide, taught fifth grade, and was the Associate Curator of Education for the Detroit Zoo. A third generation Japanese American and a native Californian, she was born in San Francisco and raised in Los Angeles and has called many places home – Michigan, Mexico, Massachusetts, New York, and China. Today, she lives in Connecticut with her husband, a rescue dog named Kiku, a bunny named Aki, and two ducks named Darcy and Lizzy.

My idea for Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen (and subsequently for the rest of the series) sprouted from my memories of family traditions, specifically Japanese traditions related to holidays, such as making mochi for New Year’s and setting up the doll display for Girl’s Day. Using tradition as a jumping off point can help you find your way into a story or help develop a character. Let’s give it a try!

Your Assignment: Set a timer for five minutes. Make a list of family traditions or activities that you remember from your childhood and ones that you do with your family today. These do not have to relate to culture or holidays. When my daughter was young, every last day of summer we had a Mommy and Caitlin Day where we planned fun activities for just the two of us. Museum visits, a carousel ride, treats from the ice cream truck, a hike; we crammed as much fun into one day as possible. And as sad as it was to bid farewell to summer, we both looked forward to Mommy and Catlin Day.

Now that you have a long list, go through it and pick one to expand upon. Set your timer for ten minutes and write as many details about this tradition as you can recall. No detail is too small!

Optional if you have a character you’re developing: Now set your timer again for ten minutes and write about a character experiencing this particular tradition. How do they feel about it? Create details specific to the character and their family/friends.

I hope this gets you jump-started on a new story or helps you learn more about a character. Feel free to share in the comments below! Happy writing! I’m cheering you on!

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30 Comments

  1. Andy Starowicz
    Posted July 17, 2018 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Good morning, Debbi!

    After completing the activity, I realized that none of the stories that I have written (middle grade manuscript, chapter book manuscript, and short stories) contain any of my family traditions. I am disappointed by that because that is what makes our family of six unique (Thanksgiving morning football, read a different holiday themed picture book each December evening leading up to Christmas, the last ice cream of the summer – the night before school starts). Today, my quest is to incorporate one (or more) of these into my own stories.

    This would also be a great idea to get my students writing (especially a narrative story). My students write a descriptive piece (where they practice using figurative language) about Thanksgiving dinner or a big family feast (if they don’t have a Thanksgiving dinner). While they are writing this descriptive piece, some of the students will add specific traditions that make their celebration unique to their own family. This school year, I will attempt to incorporate a writing activity about a family tradition that makes their family unique. It would be a great activity for the beginning of the school year.

    Thank you for the post and the idea/activity. Happy writing!

    • Posted July 17, 2018 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Hello, Andy! I’m so glad this exercise helped you and that you plan to incorporate your family traditions into your work. It’s what makes stories unique! And how wonderful to add this to your students’ writing exercises. Happy writing and thanks for stopping by!
      -debbi

  2. Martha Willey
    Posted July 17, 2018 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Dear Debbi,
    Thank you so much for sharing today. I never thought about traditions in my stories either. That would be a neat thing to bring into the story. And I feel my library students would benefit from this idea too. I try to give them ways to come up with ideas for the times their teachers have them writing something, because usually you hear the old “I don’t know what to write about.” Writing about traditions would be very approachable for them.

    To share a tradition in my family. My uncle always baked cookies and there was a certain chocolate bar cookie he made. When he died his wife took over. I have the recipe. I could make them any time. But there’s something magical about her making them for us at Christmas and only eating them then.

    • Debbi M Florence
      Posted July 17, 2018 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      I’m happy to hear this exercise was helpful! And I love your cookie tradition story. Thanks for sharing! Happy writing!

  3. Georgia Parker
    Posted July 17, 2018 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much! What a great way to add another layer to character development! I am setting my timer now!

  4. Heather Jensen
    Posted July 17, 2018 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Hi Debbi, Thank you for joining us this morning. My students love the Jasmine Toguchi series.

    I thought about traditions from own family. One big thing was the party cups at our birthday parties. I am sharing my first attempt at putting a tradition into the novel I am working on.

    My birthday falls a week after Mom’s funeral. I wake up early, not knowing what to expect. I am turning 14. While I know I am too old for another dog shaped cake and party cups, I long for the days when slumber party invites were my greatest concern. How can I expect Dad to remember my birthday with everything that is going on? How can I not be disappointed that my birthday will be forgotten? I want to stay in my room, alone, so I don’t have to put on a brave face, act like it is just another day. I am not sure I have the strength to keep it together!

    I get nostalgic, thinking back on the brown and white frosted dog cakes, I had to have every year. It has been about three years since I had one. I wondered if Mrs. Lindemann still baked specialty cakes. The best part of your birthday was coming down stairs to streamers and balloons hanging from the chandelier over the kitchen table. Around the table were the party cups. Birthday themed paper cups. Red licorice and Pixie Stixs and party horns stand tall over the edges. Candy and toys fill the bottom of the cups. Oh how I loved the little plastic guys with parachutes rubber banded to their backs. The party cups were always my favorite thing!

    A small knock at the door, brings me back to reality. I am pretty sure it is Jamie. Since about April, Jamie comes to my room and climbs into bed with me. We snuggle. I reassure her that she is loved and we talk about what the day will bring.

    “Come in,” I sigh.

    Jamie peeks her head around the door, “Are you awake?”

    “Yup,” I pull back the covers and hang my feel over the edge of the bed.

    Suddenly, the door bursts open. Dad, Jasmine, and Jamie file into the room singing Happy Birthday with a brown and white frosted dog cake with two candles on the top a 1 and 4. The flames blur as tears stream down my face.

    Dad holds the cake in front of me. I look at him in disbelief. He is crying and smiling at the same time.

    “Your Mom organized a birthday party for you. She made me promise to make sure we celebrated your 14th birthday in style.”

    I am speechless. Now we are all crying.

    “No more tears for today,” Dad proclaims. “Today is all about you Jessie. Today we celebrate the wonder of you. I hope you are not too old for a dog cake. I remember you always had to have one. Your Mom called Mrs. Lindemann about a month ago to see if she would make you this cake.”

    “Blow out your candles and make a wish,” Jamie yells! “Amina is coming over for a slumber party! Can we all sleep in your room?”

    Jasmine smiles weakly. “I would really like that too.”

    “Well that settles it,” I whisper and blow out my candles.

    • Posted July 17, 2018 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      Heather, I really like how you incorporated your family tradition! It makes the characters seem so real.

      • Posted July 17, 2018 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

        Ditto Andrea. This was very authentic and I’d be hooked – let us know if there will be more to the story!!

    • Posted July 18, 2018 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      GAH!!!! You made me cry! (In a good way!) Thank you so much for sharing your writing – and your memory! Great layering! And I’m so happy to hear your students enjoy Jasmine Toguchi! Happy writing!
      — debbi

  5. Susan MacKay-Logue
    Posted July 17, 2018 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Debbie,
    What a great idea! It will be a wonderful addition to my Writers Workshop minilessons in the fall. Thank you so much for your time and suggestion.
    Happy Hour

    “Dinner in a half an hour!” I shout across the deck to my cousin’s deck next door.  

    “Sue, happy hour begins at 6, not dinner,” Nancy hollers back.  “Dinner is at 7.” 

    How easy it is to forget the tide table that we follow at the lake. After 11 months away in the real world, I have forgotten to take it easy, slow it down, relax and refresh.  “OK, I’ll shut it down.  Be over in a minute.”  Nancy lives in northern Michigan, and has access to her cottage year round.  She adapts more quickly to the slower pace than I do.  

    For generations, family, cousins, second cousins-once-removed, and friends have gathered at one deck or another along our “compound” of four houses on Torch Lake, Michigan.  We jockey for the lake facing chairs, so that we can enjoy lake views of the tricolored waters while we nosh on whitefish pâté, and other lake specialties while we sip boxed wine with ice.  Truth be told, the non-lake-facing spots are just as lovely, because you catch the reflection of the lake on the big windows of the cottages, and can take in the woods of white pine, ash, and birch surrounding them. 

    Nancy has a fantastic garden, so we look forward to her daily fresh veggie contribution to the event.  Her snap peas are delicate and sweet, adding a crunch and tasty compliment to any humus offering.  Bob, her husband, is a cherry farmer, so when he comes and brings some to share, it is a very special treat.  Everyone contributes to the food, but it is the conversation that drives this tradition.

    Our second cousins-once-removed, the Mertz family,  have lived here year round for longer than any of us.  They are our touchstones for local news and color commentary.  We share stories about the old days, when we were all young, and turn to them for verification.  The problem with this is that all the Mertzs are incredibly creative people, so there is an ongoing argument as to what is factual, and what is a “Mertz Myth.”  Truth is, none of us really care, as the stories are vibrant, engaging, and perfect for this setting.  

    Did Grampa Mertz actually shoot a water moccasin with a revolver from the shore, while all of the kids were in the water?  We may never know.  Mertz, a retired Detroit Police Officer, is long gone, but the story persists leaving its mark on happy hour year after year.

    • Posted July 18, 2018 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      Hi! Thank you for sharing your writing! Such wonderful details – and the food descriptoins made my hungry! I laughed about the “Mertz Myths.” Clever!
      — debbi

  6. Posted July 17, 2018 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Summer School
    Posted on July 17, 2018 by showgem
    I used to teach Summer School during the month of July. I taught remedial math and reading. The last year I taught summer school I had 5th grade students. Both of my daughters worked at summer school as well. Chelsie taught a theater class for younger kids. Trisha taught with her girlfriend a variety of topics including books. Every year at the end of summer school we would go to a local restaurant and have lunch. The restaurant is called The Sycamore. There is a juke box in the restaurant. We ordered steak-burgers, with homemade root beer and of course, we had fries. It was a great way to end our July.

    • Posted July 18, 2018 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      What a nice memory and tradition! Thank you for sharing! (‘dI love homemade root beer!)
      –debbi

  7. Jane Weiland
    Posted July 17, 2018 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Hi Debbi,

    I didn’t write about a character experiencing a certain tradition, but I did take some time to list activites/traditions I had and some that I continue to do with my family. I enjoyed this jaunt down memory lane as I reflected on many traditions that I used to share with my grandmother who is no longer living. While many were wonderful experiences at the time, some were not so pleasant then but I am certainly thankful for them now like attending the Pittsburgh Symphony as a child with my family (we were season ticket holders). The only thing my sister and I looked forward to at the time was intermission so we could have Junior Mints. Now, I enjoy attending symphonies and have been playing classical piano for some time. Go figure!
    I just finished reading Jasmine Toguschi Mochi Queen and, as the youngest sister, I can certainly relate to Jasmine. Even though an older sister can be annoying and bossy, she can also be your biggest cheerleader. This was such a fun story to read and one that kids can really relate to. I was laughing out loud at the line when Jasmine was thinking “so that’s what his (Eddie’s) face looks like when he was happy”. 🙂 I’ll be reading more books from the series and sharing them with my class.
    Thanks for being a part of Teachers Write today!

    Jane 🙂

    • Posted July 18, 2018 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for sharing your memories. I love that detail of only looking forward to intermission to eat Jr Mints! That’s a great gem there! And thank you for reading Mochi Queen and for your kind words. (I have to admit that I was the bossy big sister growing up – but I now have much more sympathy for what my sister had to put up with when we were young. LOL)
      –debbi

  8. Kay
    Posted July 17, 2018 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Hi Debbi,

    Thanks for the prompt. I did write a list, and it was hard to decide what to write about. I did try to incorporate my character. A Christmas morning food tradition carried down from my husband’s side is making Eggs Benedict and Orange Julius.

    Samena woke to Christmas music playing. This is my first Christmas with my new family. She clamored out of bed, and ran down the hall to see if Lucy was awake.
    “Wake up, wake up, it’s Christmas morning!”
    Scrambling down the stairs, they ran into the living room where they could see what Santa had left. Samena could easily identify which one was hers; a soccer ball, and an American Doll, Marisol Luna, with some new clothes. Her stocking was bulging with candy and other small trinkets.
    Suddenly, she had some terrible thoughts. What if they take this away? And even if my mom didn’t want me, she had to love me, right? It was too much to think about.
    “Can we open the gifts under the tree?” asked Lucy.
    “Not yet; mom is making breakfast. Let’s go see what we can do to help her,” said Mack.
    The kitchen table still had the beautiful decorations from the night before. Tinsel, little twinkle lights, and candles adorned the middle of the table.
    “Samena, a tradition in our house is eating Eggs Benedict and homemade Orange Julius. Could you help me with the Orange Julius?” Julia asked.
    When she started to speak, I almost went into that place in my head where I didn’t feel anything because I was getting angry. This all could be temporary, and I felt like an imposter.

    • Posted July 18, 2018 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for sharing your writing! What a lovely tradition – and I can feel Samena’s angst at this new (to her) tradition and her worries of losing it and this new family. Nice job!

  9. Diane S
    Posted July 17, 2018 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Christmas Eve is hot with the oven on all day and steam from the boiling potatoes both white and sweet on the stove.Two potatoes is a lot! There is ham, pineapples, salad and fresh rolls. The butter I set is melting slowly out of its silver tray. I am wrapping red napkins around the spoons and forks, no knives mama said. The air is heavy in the kitchen and crisp near the tree with presents wrapped and waiting.

    The smell of the skinny thing floats like bubbles up the steep staircase to the bedrooms that smell like smoke and hairspray where music booms and feet stomp. Someone is bouncing a ball on the wall making me and Mama flinch. They are all so much older, teens or almost when I arrived that the holiday for them is not the same. My joy and squealing is not appreciated. I am already ten they said, knock it off, grow up already. They are a jaded angry audience that only want to eat, open their clothing and go back to their rooms or the cars of their boyfriends.

    Mom is expecting a baby soon and Dad is not here, not since school started and my brother closest to me, my confidant died. The police came. Said he was running to cross and didn’t see the truck. Or he was running to cross and the truck didn’t see him. Either way he is at the cemetery down the road. He had flowers until it got too cold. He never like flowers. I wanted to leave him cards on that bumpy stone with his name but mama said it is wasteful. I carry the cards every time we go. I whisper to him that I have them and I won’t let anybody throw them out, in case he wants to play again. Mama said we would see him again someday in the ever after. I’ll play Uno with him then.

    • Posted July 18, 2018 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      Ohhhhhh! This made my heart tweak! What great detail, and because of them, a depth of emotion. Thank you for sharing!
      — debbi

  10. Diane S
    Posted July 17, 2018 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Christmas Eve is hot with the oven on all day and steam from the boiling potatoes both white and sweet on the stove.Two potatoes is a lot! There is ham, pineapples, salad and fresh rolls. The butter I set is melting slowly out of its silver tray. I am wrapping red napkins around the spoons and forks, no knives mama said. The air is heavy in the kitchen and crisp near the tree with presents wrapped and waiting.

    The smell of the skinny tree floats like bubbles up the steep staircase to the bedrooms that smell like smoke and hairspray where music booms and feet stomp. Someone is bouncing a ball on the wall making me and Mama flinch. They are all so much older, teens or almost when I arrived that the holiday for them is not the same. My joy and squealing is not appreciated. I am already ten they said, knock it off, grow up already. They are a jaded angry audience that only want to eat, open their clothing and go back to their rooms or the cars of their boyfriends.

    Mom is expecting a baby soon and Dad is not here, not since school started and my brother closest to me, my confidant died. The police came. Said he was running to cross and didn’t see the truck. Or he was running to cross and the truck didn’t see him. Either way he is at the cemetery down the road. He had flowers until it got too cold. He never like flowers. I wanted to leave him cards on that bumpy stone with his name but mama said it is wasteful. I carry the cards every time we go. I whisper to him that I have them and I won’t let anybody throw them out, in case he wants to play again. Mama said we would see him again someday in the ever after. I’ll play Uno with him then.

  11. Posted July 17, 2018 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this idea, Debbi! I love it, and it made me think of what kind of traditions I want to create for my little family moving on. My quick-write below is purely a searching of my memories, and I didn’t do the one with a character since I don’t have a WIP. But I enjoyed strolling down memory lane, and did add two or three sentences past my 10 minute timer, haha. I’d love to use this prompt with my students, too.

    Every Tết Trung Thu as a child, my mom would make beautiful star-shaped lanterns for us. The rest of the world would call them paper lanterns, and for them, they were. But my mom would find colorful yellow and red cellophane, and shape our lanterns over metal frames she created. We would endeavor to keep the frames through the years and only have to re-do the cellophane. With our lanterns in tow, we would arrive at the temple at night and see all the twinkling lanterns around us. There was a definite spectrum of lanterns, but I always remember feeling like ours were the only ones in the middle of that spectrum. On one end were cheap, store-bought paper lanterns that all blended together after you’d seen a few of them. They were generally somewhat spherical in shape, with crinkles in the middle where they’d unfolded. On the other end were ridiculously elaborate lanterns that, as a child, I couldn’t discern to be hand-crafted or store-bought (though, as an adult now, I realize that even if they were store-bought they were originally hand-crafted). Multi-color dragons that danced behind the children who pulled them and could open their mouths to reveal their little candle light inside – I remember these best.

    Eventually, we got older and didn’t always want to go to the temple anymore, but the colorful cellophane star-shaped lanterns were always the apple of my eye… (Maybe they’re part of why I love stars so much today.) To me, they were a part of that mom-magic I couldn’t reach. I couldn’t fathom how she could obtain cellophane so delicate and pretty, and how she could construct the lantern. I wish I’d been taught. But as a child, I had liked to just watch the magic come together. As an adult, I realize now that I can buy such supplies if I really wanted to – and yet I haven’t.

    Another Vietnamese friend of mine came over one year my spouse and I were living in our apartment. She said she wanted to make lanterns, and she would make the frames and we could decorate them together. She constructed stars out of wooden skewers and popsicle sticks, and we crudely hot-glued them together to the best of our estimation. We covered them in tissue paper like you would use to stuff a gift bag. Then we put in our little tea lights, and we had fun walking around the apartment complex, having a silly little two-lantern parade.

    Later on, my little family had moved to a house closer to my new job as a first year teacher. When Tết Trung Thu came around again, my friend came by with electronic tea lights that lit up in a rainbow of colors. She brought her old lantern and I took mine down, which had been hanging as a decoration in my son’s room. She, her little brother (a middle-schooler), my husband, and I made up a parade with my one-year-old sitting in his little push truck watching the lights with fascination. Plus, he had a thing for night walks. We walked in the dark with our two rainbow-flashing lanterns all the way towards the park, and then we turned around to head back home, because our friend needed to go back to her house.

    Maybe I’ll take my son to his Bà’s house and ask her to teach us to make the lanterns together when he’s a little older.

    • Posted July 18, 2018 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      OH Vi! I loved reading this so much! I didn’t know about this tradition and I just now looked it up. A moon festival/lantern festival. You did a fabulous job painting a vivid memory. Thank you so much for sharing your memories!
      –debbi

  12. Tiffiny Federico
    Posted July 17, 2018 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    It seems that the majority of my family traditions are related to cooking and eating, especially on my Father’s side. On my mom’s side, it’s the storytelling. Every holiday and get together involved the retelling of the family stories.

    My first thought was to write about making tamales in November. It’s a fun, labor intensive, family & friend filled day. And it’s yummy. But as my list kept going, I realized that learning how to make enchiladas from my Nana was especially poignant. My nickname in my family is Little Nana. She was awesome.

    Long ago, on the way home from work, I stopped by Gelson’s and on a whim bought ingredients for chicken enchiladas & a dozen yellow roses. I came home and made enchiladas, rice & beans. As we were eating, my mom, dad & myself, my dad commented, “These taste just like my mom’s.” I looked at the yellow roses, Nana’s favorite, and burst into tears. It was then that I realized it was the 1-year anniversary of her passing. I had forgotten, but not forgotten. I haven’t thought of that memory in a long time, and will write about it. When I write, my characters are never in the kitchen, but maybe I should explore that a bit as well.

    I can see how this would be a good prompt to use with my English students to get them to write and also to get to know them. Thank you Debbi.

    • Posted July 18, 2018 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Tiffany, for sharing this memory. I got teary-eyed – what a lovely connection you had with your Nana. I could totally see how putting your characters in the kitchen could add some real depth, being that you have such strong memories there. 🙂
      –debbi

  13. Larry D. Carter
    Posted July 17, 2018 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Debbie. I did not plan to write about food or share, but after making the list and remembering the past, I thought of the title of the old song, “Thanks for the Memories” and wrote just a little.

    “Franklin, get up. Breakfast is ready.”

    Franklin could smell the food. He quickly dressed and ran downstairs. The table was filled with platters of eggs, bacon, pancakes, fried potatoes, and biscuits. Franklin turned and smiled at his mom as she walked toward the table.

    “Gee, mom. This is great.”

    • Posted July 18, 2018 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      I’m so glad you took a walk down memory lane – looks like you have a strong memory of mom and food. Wow that breakfast sounds delicious! Thank you for sharing!
      –debbi

  14. Tracy
    Posted July 17, 2018 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    We do not really have traditions in my family. Our family history has created a truly wonderful group of people who are driven to follow dreams. These dreams have led our family far afield, but this brings me to the one thing that unites us.

    My dad is one of ten. He is the youngest brother, with only one sister younger than him. When my dad has ten siblings, who have each had at least two – sometimes three or four – children, and get together are bound to bring a crowd. Due to school and work schedules, we generally choose the weekend after the US Thanksgiving to get together and, due to a matter of numbers, we generally end up in South Carolina or North Carolina. I cannot express enough how incredible our family is. The warmth and generosity that one feels entering a hall (yes, we have to use a hall, due to there being in the neighborhood of one hundred of us) filled with my family can be life altering. My ex suffered from PTSD in addition to the anxiety which was inherent to him. He avoided these gatherings due to his concerns about crowds and a population different than that of his own family. When we came in and my incredible family was kind and welcoming and thankful for his presence, he felt completely at home. Yes, there’s food. There’s always food, and it is always really good, but my family – just being themselves – is the thing everyone seems to walk away remembering.
    My aunt Emily most often hosts these gatherings at her church. She is my uncle Sanky’s wife. Yes, my uncle passed years ago, but she is incredible (Aunt Emily could be a book unto herself). She is one of the many members exuding the beauty, warmth, and support that one would meet when joining us over the weekend after Thanksgiving.
    I suppose that is our tradition: offering anyone and everyone kindness, acceptance, warmth, and support.

    • Posted July 18, 2018 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      Oh my goodness! What a wonderful large family you have – and I can feel the warmth of them through your words. This definitely counts as tradition. Thank you for sharing!
      –debbi

  15. Posted July 18, 2018 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    It is such a privilege and joy to read these comments – the sharing of memories and tradition, and the sharing of the exercise itself. Thank you for sharing! I truly enjoyed reading each and every one of these!

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