Cover Reveal for KEEP IT TOGETHER, KEIKO CARTER by Debbi Michiko Florence
Do you remember your first heartbreak? I do. I was in the third grade. I had two best friends I did everything with – hanging out at recess and lunch and one another’s homes, reading together, watching our favorite TV shows, playing with dolls and stuffed animals. Then, I found out the two of them had started doing things together, without me.
In middle school, I got my first boyfriend and I was giddy with the flush of “first love.” I shared every detail with my best friend. We analyzed my phone conversations with him and the notes he wrote to me. But while crushes at that age can feel deep and real, they can sometimes be fleeting. After a couple of months, I started to question my feelings, and my best friend encouraged me to break up with him. You might already guess where this is heading. Two days later, they were together.
Middle school brings so many joys and complicated emotions – new friendships are formed, old ones are tested, crushes develop and disappear. It’s a time of great change and great confusion. Heartbreak is always painful, but nothing ever compares to the heartbreak that comes from a best friend’s snub or betrayal. When the person who has long had your back, the person you most value, hurts you, it is devastating.
Perhaps that’s why I have always gravitated toward books about friendship with a thread of romance: from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume to The Key to the Golden Firebird by Maureen Johnson and The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart.
The one thing that was missing, however, were characters that looked like me. Not only characters that looked like me, but that lived a similar life. I am third generation Japanese American. I grew up middle class in Los Angeles and attended large and diverse middle and high schools. I didn’t realize I was missing that piece in books I read until I became a mom, and discovered books like Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee and Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park, contemporary stories with Asian American protagonists.
When I sat down to write Keep It Together, Keiko Carter in 2006, I knew it was a story about friendship and first crushes. I also knew the main characters looked like me and my daughter, who is hafu (half Japanese American, half White). I also kept in mind my then tween daughter who said, “Japanese Americans can fall in love, have fights with their friends, have family problems. Where are those books for me?”
I knew that writing about Japanese American characters wasn’t just about skin color. Being Japanese American runs much deeper than that. There are things that are layered within me: the way I was brought up, the culture and traditions in my family, the experiences – both positive and negative – that I’ve had because I am Japanese American. I also recalled the many conversations I had with my now adult daughter about micro-aggressions and the similar and dissimilar ways we reacted to them. All of those things needed to be part of Keiko’s story, too.
Keiko Carter has two best friends, Jenna Sakai and Audrey Lassiter. They have great plans for seventh grade to be fabulous, until Audrey throws in a goal of getting boyfriends. Keiko is skeptical, but since she is determined to keep the peace in their threesome, she gets on board. When boys start to come between the three girls, their friendship is tested in many ways. Keiko struggles to be a good friend, while also dealing with a crush of her own that adds to the tension.
Thirteen years after I wrote the first draft, Keep It Together, Keiko Carter will soon be a real book with real readers. I wrote it for the adolescent I was and for the pre-teen my daughter was. And my hope is that many readers will see themselves in it – Asian American tweens, for sure, but really anyone who’s dealt with complicated friendships, changing bodies, hormones, or might understand what a first crush feels like.
I’ve experienced heartbreak many times in my life, both in relationships with trusted friends and boyfriends, and in the form of rejections of books I poured my heart and soul into. But as with most things, heartbreak has a purpose – it teaches us resilience and pushes us to grow. To me, nothing is more important than friendship – the bonds that connect us, comfort us, and teach us. I think that’s why in almost every book I write, friendship is a central theme.
Yes, I remember heartbreak, but hearts heal. It gives me immense joy to introduce Keiko Carter to you and I hope you end up loving her as much as I do.
Debbi Michiko Florence is the author of the Jasmine Toguchi chapter books (JLG selections, the Amelia Bloomer and CCBC Choices lists, and a Cybils Award winner). A third generation Japanese American, she was born and raised in California. She is the proud mom of a daughter, a rescue dog, two ducks, and a rabbit. A former zoo educator, Debbi writes books in her writing studio, The Word Nest, in Connecticut where she lives with her husband. She, of course, loves all chocolate, but favors dark, no nuts, and caramel and maple flavors. You can always find her at debbimichikoflorence.com