While I Was Away

English & Japanese

MG & Up

Asian-American Experience


Own Voices

Growing Up


Language Learning


Waka T. Brown


Waka is a Japanese-American sixth grader in rural Kansas in the 1980’s. At home, her family speaks Japanese almost exclusively, but Waka is behind in reading and writing in kanji. After a few incidents where Waka’s mother asks her in Japanese to help her with chores and she doesn’t answer (because who wants to fold and put away laundry when there are better things to do?) Waka is informed that she doesn’t know enough Japanese and is sent to live with her grandmother Obaasama in Tokyo for five months.

In a typical Japanese school, Waka navigates social protocol while learning to read and write in Japanese at her age level. Much of it is based on the author’s memories, and Waka does a lot of thinking about the space she inhabits as a Japanese-American person.

Within the story, Waka describes in detail how tricky learning kanji is, teaching the reader a bit about how the language and writing system is structured as well. Waka is real to herself about how she struggles to understand social norms and the confusing gray area of wanting to know more about her family history but being kind of afraid and intimidated by her Obaasama.

Something I love about this book (I read it all in one evening!) was how things are left unfinished. Waka T. Brown weaves in some follow-up memories about her life post-Japan but the plot isn’t tied up neatly in a bow. There is never a heartfelt goodbye conversation between Obaasama and Waka, like there would be if the book was a Lifetime movie. It’s a real story from Waka’s real life, extremely relatable and easy to connect with. This book was kindly sent by Harper Kids but all opinions are my own!

Waka T. Brown

Waka is a Stanford graduate with a B.A. in International Relations and a Master’s in Secondary Education. While I Was Away (HarperCollins / Quill Tree 2021) is her debut novel.

Photo by Miles Brown

more like While I Was Away

Leave a Reply