I have never read a children’s memoir, unless it was a memoir written for children by a famous person about their entire life. While I Was Away by Waka T. Brown is such a memorable story about Waka’s time in Japan, living with her grandmother, as a preteen.

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The summary, from Amazon:

The Farewell meets Erin Entrada Kelly’s Blackbird Fly in this empowering middle grade memoir from debut author Waka T. Brown, who takes readers on a journey to 1980s Japan, where she was sent as a child to reconnect to her family’s roots.

When twelve-year-old Waka’s parents suspect she can’t understand the basic Japanese they speak to her, they make a drastic decision to send her to Tokyo to live for several months with her strict grandmother. Forced to say goodbye to her friends and what would have been her summer vacation, Waka is plucked from her straight-A-student life in rural Kansas and flown across the globe, where she faces the culture shock of a lifetime.

In Japan, Waka struggles with reading and writing in kanji, doesn’t quite mesh with her complicated and distant Obaasama, and gets made fun of by the students in her Japanese public-school classes. Even though this is the country her parents came from, Waka has never felt more like an outsider.

If she’s always been the “smart Japanese girl” in America but is now the “dumb foreigner” in Japan, where is home…and who will Waka be when she finds it?

Buy While I Was Away here.

In While I Was Away, Waka tells the story of the five months she spent in Japan with her grandmother as a child. Waka’s parents sent her so she could learn Japanese. In Japan, Waka struggles to fit in at times, and also has an interesting relationship with her Obaasama, her grandmother. Obaasama is distant, but the two grow close over the course of the trip.

While I Was Away really touched me. I find reading about middle grade kids always does that to me. That age was such a pivotal moment in my life that I get emotional thinking about it and always relate to children in books. Since this was Waka’s memoir, the story hit me even more than usual. What I loved most about it was Waka’s strength. She recognizes the generational trauma her Obaasama has dealt with, but when Obaasama takes it too far and is cruel to Waka, Waka knows she does not have to forgive her. Obaasama’s past is a reason for her behavior, but no excuse. I would never have come to this realization at 12 and in all honesty, reading this segment caused me to do some personal healing of my own.

Overall, I highly recommend While I Was Away. I think it would be a great way to get children into memoirs and Waka’s story is very relatable. The addition of letters Waka received and art really add to the narrative. I rate this one 5 stars.

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While I Was AwayWhile I Was Away by Waka T. Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not sure I have ever read a children’s memoir written by someone who wasn’t super famous. What a great read. I really admired and related to Waka. I loved that she developed a relationship with her Obaasama but also knew she did not have to forgive her for being cruel when she didn’t apologize, and that her difficult upbringing was no excuse for being hurtful to Waka.

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Book Club Questions

  1. What was different about Waka’s experience in Japan as opposed to her life in Kansas? What was the same?
  2. Do you think Waka’s experience would be different if she grew in now instead of the 1980’s?
  3. Describe the relationship between Waka and Obaasama. What was it like before, during, and after Waka’s visit?

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