Jean Davies Okimoto

Interviews & Articles

January Magazine Interview


In a literary field where awards mean everything, Jean Davies Okimoto has a bookcase full. Various of her 13 books have been the recipient of the American Library Association's Best Books for Young Adults Award; the International Reading Association's Reader's Choice Award; the IRA/CBC Young Adults' Choice Award; the Parent's Choice Award; the Washington Governor's Award and the Maxwell Medallion for Best Children's Book of the Year. As well, two of her books have been recognized as the Smithsonian Institution's Notable Books.

Based in Seattle, Washington, Okimoto -- who has been writing books for children and young adults since the late 1970s -- has a day job. Her work as a psychotherapist has perhaps given Okimoto an inside track to the minds of young people: their problems and challenges.

"I don't read in this genre," she admits. "That's supposed to be death to a writer, but it's true. I don't read other people's books for young adults."

This might be another part of her secret. Okimoto's books are fresh and real without the pill buried within that so many books for that age group seem compelled to add. For example, Okimoto's latest book The Eclipse of Moonbeam Dawson doesn't have any larger lessons: no hidden meanings or even hints of moralizing that can destroy a book's entertainment value. It is, however, a very good read with well drawn characters and believable situations. A book that even an adult can enjoy.

"I really wasn't trying to suggest to anybody how to be a teenager," Okimoto says, "how to parent a teenager, how you're supposed to live. I just wanted to write about these particular characters."

And these particular characters are quite interesting. Moonbeam Dawson is the son of an idealistic woman named Abby who is determined to make the world a better place. Most of Moonbeam's growing years have been spent in various new age-type communities on Canada's west coast and his reality is filled with peace and vegetarianism. It hasn't done much to equip him for the real world.

While there is a virtual lack of moralizing in Okimoto's writing, she feels that there is a positive undercurrent that runs through all of her work. A message, if you will, that's essentially about growing towards the light. For example, the character of Moonbeam Dawson is biracial: his father was a native Canadian. "People with a biracial background have a harder struggle as teenagers in trying to come to terms with their own identity. I suppose if there is a pill, it might be the voice of Gloria -- the girl who is Japanese-Canadian -- in her idea that if someone has a problem with you, then you have a problem with them. But that's about as moralistic as I get."

The growth aspects are essential to Okimoto's work: something that is not unfathomable when you consider her day job. "I think you want people to end up a little different than how they start at the beginning of the story."

The biracial theme that has run through several of her books is one that Okimoto has a special understanding for. "My stepsons are Asian, and my daughters are from my first marriage and they're white. My husband is Japanese American and my mother was adopted in 1911 in Chicago and all we ever knew about her biological background is that she was Jewish: she was a Jewish baby adopted by a Protestant family."

Okimoto adopted the double-barreled name to avoid confusion. "Because of my interest in multicultural books I wanted to represent myself honestly. My maiden name is there just so I'm not misrepresenting myself."

In this case, though, the avoidance of misrepresentation also gives a fuller view of the actuality of being Jean Davies Okimoto. "When you're part of a racially mixed couple the world does react to you a little differently. It depends on where you are: in the Pacific Northwest, it's not a big deal. But if you get away -- anything that's a little more conservative and has less cultural diversity -- there's sort of a scrutiny that you feel that's different. And there are some people that are uncomfortable still."

This sense of separation has, perhaps, brought Okimoto closer to her chosen topic. "I think that for anyone who writes for teenagers, there's some sense of alienation they can tap into rather easily to understand that experience. I think it's fairly universal."

While teenagers and alienation can be practically synonymous, Okimoto enjoys writing for that audience. "I really love teenagers. It's a time of enormous change. I think they're just very interesting and their dynamics are very interesting. Although I'm gearing up now to probably write some fiction for adults. It's sort of simmering, I think."

And while she loves all sorts of teenagers, her fiction has leaned more towards boys; even though that isn't the best way to sell books. "Typically books about boys don't sell as well in this age group." Despite this, "I keep writing about teenage boys: I just think they're so funny."

Humor is the common subtext in all of Okimoto's writing. She doesn't go for the 'ha-ha' big gag, but rather finds humor in the subtle textures that are apparent in all of our lives. "I experience life sort of as a tragicomedy, you know? And there's a lot of humor in what I write: I hope it's funny. It's stuff I think is funny. And there's also usually something philosophical. So there's that sort of combination."

The adult novel that's simmering is getting closer to the surface. Okimoto is beginning to have a handle on the story it might be and the reasons she wants to write it. "I think the death of my father three years ago certainly has gotten me in touch with my own mortality in a way that I hadn't been before. And I think you start thinking about your time being limited. Have you done what you came here to do? And as a writer, said what I wanted to say and explored what you wanted to explore. And I think in terms of family and relationships and what people my age are sorting out: those are the kinds of things that are interesting to me. Whether it's interesting to anyone else I don't know."

Though the subject of that still-to-be-written book for the adult market might be different, there are indicators that the writing should -- perhaps -- not be greatly so. "Some of my books have found sort of a crossover audience into the adult market because my adult characters are more developed than some young adult writers. Like in this one: [Moonbeam Dawson] that mother-son relationship was an important part of the story."

No matter where Okimoto's future writing takes her, one thing is certain, "I'll always write for teenagers because I like them."


Linda Richards is editor of January Magazine and the author of several non-fiction books.
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Authors and Artists for Young Adults on Jean Davies Okimoto

Balancing her career as a young-adult novelist with her work as a practicing psychotherapist, Jean Davies Okimoto draws on her own memories as well as the experiences of her children in writing "problem" novels--stories that depict average teens dealing with realistic situations within their families and school. "Okimoto brings a light, easy style to her books," commented Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers contributor Bill Buchanan, adding that her novels "should be high on anyone's list who is counseling middle schoolers through adjustment problems related to relationships in the home or school setting." While Okimoto's fiction contains the happy endings that are not always guaranteed in real life, critics have praised many of her books, which include the award-winning Jason's Women, Molly by Any Other Name, and The Eclipse of Moonbeam Dawson. "In writing for young people, I attempt to entertain, to write as honestly as I can, and to say something which I believe to be true about the human condition," Okimoto once revealed. "In my novels I want my readers to be able to find themselves in my characters and, through compassion for the characters, have compassion for themselves. I want to give my readers two things: a fun time and the realization that they are not alone in what they feel."

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1942, Okimoto first began to take her writing seriously when she reached middle school. "I had a newspaper on my block with my next-door neighbor and best friend, Lola Ham," the novelist once recalled. "This newspaper was written in pencil, duplicated on carbon paper, and stapled together. It cost two cents a copy and lasted for one issue as it was censored by an adult. This person shall remain nameless; however, revenge is one of my motives for writing." While continuing to write, Okimoto also focused her intellectual curiosity in another area, earning her master's degree at Antioch College and beginning a career as a psychotherapist.

Publishes Debut Novel

Begun during the mid-1970s--at the same time that she was beginning her private practice in psychotherapy in Seattle, Washington--Okimoto's first novel for young adults, My Mother Is Not Married to My Father, was turned down by seventeen publishers before Putnam Publishing released it in 1979. "I almost gave up trying to get the book published," the author recalled, "but I kept on because of my youngest daughter, Amy. She was ten years old at the time and seemed to have an unshakable faith in the book and insisted I keep submitting it."

My Mother Is Not Married to My Father introduces readers to a personable sixth-grader named Cynthia Browne, as she deals with her parents' divorce and her mother's pending second marriage to someone new. Shuttling between the family home and her father's new apartment, parental dating, and her own feeling that she might be to blame for the breakdown of her parents' marriage are just some of the adjustments eleven-year-old Cynthia must face in a book that Horn Book contributor Karen M. Klockner described as "a humane and funny look at a situation increasingly common in family life today." While noting that the story line is "fairly routine," Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reviewer Zena Sutherland praised Okimoto's writing for its "vitality and humor," and the novel's young protagonist for her resiliency and ability to stay focused on her own life during her family's upheaval.

Cynthia Browne returns in Okimoto's second young adult novel, 1980's It's Just Too Much, and readers follow her narrative as she copes with new step-siblings, as well as the embarrassment wrought by the physical changes of her own adolescence--braces, pimples, and the humiliation of being the last of the "no bra" girls in her class. While the book contains a great deal of humor, a Booklist contributor commented that Okimoto does resist poking fun at her ungainly protagonist; "universal tribulations of puberty are given a measure of dignity."

The problems of old age are compared with those confronted by teens in Okimoto's Take a Chance, Gramps! Janie Higgins suddenly finds herself on her own after her best friend moves away at the start of seventh grade. While she attempts to create a new social life for herself, she also begins to understand the loneliness experienced by her recently widowed grandfather. Being firm and encouraging the somewhat resistant Gramps to attend his community's weekly seniors dance, Janie gains the self-confidence needed to take a chance on meeting friends her own age. Take a Chance, Gramps! "illuminate[s] the stumbling efforts of a very likeable adolescent" and depicts two people "who prod each other along with affection and good advice and share the ups and downs of making a new start," in the opinion of Horn Book reviewer Margaret A. Bush. And Booklist contributor Leone McDermott praised the novel for its ability to "provide entertaining encouragement for the many [teens] facing similar trials."

Finds Humor Important

"Basically, I feel that there is so much suffering and sadness in the world that we should treasure a good laugh whenever we find one," Okimoto once stated. "I guess that's why my books have been described as 'sad and funny.'" The book often praised by critics for its down-to-earth humor is Okimoto's 1982 novel, Norman Schnurman, Average Person. Living under the shadow of his father, well-known former collegiate football hero "Mad Dog" Schnurman, puts a lot of stress on sixth-grader Norman, who is not the least bit interested in following in his father's footsteps. While he joins the football team to try to please his dad, the teen's real passion is flea markets, where he finds all sorts of tacky but fascinating stuff. He also meets new friends when he runs into neighbors Carrie Koski and her grandfather. When Carrie makes it clear that she likes Norman for who he is rather than for whose son he is, the young man gains the confidence to assert his independence and quit the football team. Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper described the novel as "rowdy and ribald as sixth-grade boys themselves," and a reviewer in School Library Journal praised Okimoto's ability to introduce teen readers--particularly boys--to "a positive character who has good potential for growth."

Another book of special interest to teen boys is Okimoto's 1986 novel, Jason's Women. Lonely due to his parents' preoccupation with their disintegrating marriage, and frustrated by the fact that he turns into a total bumbling idiot every time he tries to talk to a girl, sixteen-year-old Jason Kovak decides to do his homework where women are concerned. Copiously studying such key texts as The Sensuous Male and How to Fascinate Women, he starts answering personal ads and winds up landing a job with wealthy, eccentric octogenarian Bertha Jane Filmore and assisting her in her offbeat bid for mayor of Seattle. Noting that Jason's Women "convincingly captures the adolescent voice" in "moving moments" as well as in "hilarious, if sometimes slightly ribald, snatches of text," Horn Book contributor Karen Jameyson praised Okimoto's novel as "sparkl[ing] with wit and life from beginning to end." While noting that the novel's ending is somewhat weak, Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman contended that Jason's story is told with "humor and sensitivity, and teens will enjoy his bumbling attempts to set up a smoldering sexual encounter."

Examines Racial Issues

In her more recent teen novels, Okimoto has begun to focus on the unique problems faced by Asian American and biracial children. In Molly by Any Other Name, she introduces Molly Jane Fletcher, an all-American high school senior, except for the fact that she's adopted and is of Asian heritage. Curious about her heritage--is she Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Thai"--Molly learns about an organization that can help her track down her birth mother. With the support of her parents as well as her best friend Roland Hirada, Molly pursues her search with ever-growing maturity, ultimately connecting with her Japanese Canadian mother and her half-brother. "With considerable candor, Okimoto writes about the elemental search for roots, the fear as well as the great happiness it can bring," commented Rochman. Praising the author for balancing Molly's search for her roots with relationships with friends and a blossoming romance with Roland, Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Florence H. Munat called Molly by Any Other Name "a book about an important subject, skillfully written, that can make you laugh and cry at a single sitting."

Other issues of relevance to Asian American teens are dealt with in Talent Night, which Okimoto published in 1995. Not deterred by cultural stereotypes, seventeen-year-old Rodney Suyama is determined to become the first Japanese American rap star. He is also determined to win the heart of Ivy Ramos, the most popular girl in his high school and the current steady of star football player Lavell Tyler. Rodney banks on his performance at his high-school's talent night to accomplish both his goals, in a novel buoyed by "Rodney's wit, determination, and sunny outlook," in the opinion of a Publishers Weekly reviewer. The theme of identity for biracial teens is also explored in The Eclipse of Moonbeam Dawson, about the attempts of half- native Moonbeam Dawson to have a "normal" life after living in a commune with his mother. After rebelling and taking his own apartment, testing out a new name, and trying to fit in with local kids, Moonbeam comes to realize that the values his mother taught him are ones that he truly believes in as well. "Teens will find themselves cheering him on," Connie Tyrrell Burns noted in School Library Journal, "suffering with him in his oh-so- embarrassing moments, and figuring out with him the meaning of family, first love, and friendship."