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Books by Jean Davies Okimoto
My Mother Is Not Married to My Father
It's Just Too Much
Norman Schnurman, Average Person
Who Did It, Jenny Lake?
Molly By Any Other Name
Take A Chance, Gramps!
The Eclipse of Moonbeam Dawson
Blumpoe The Grumpoe Meets Arnold The Cat
A Place For Grace
No Dear, Not Here
Hum It Again, Jeremy
Boomerang Kids: How to Live with Adult Children Who Return Home
"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."
Jean Davies Okimoto's fiction for young adults is thick with the author's special blend of humor and pathos. Her work is youthful and sometimes zany: filled with the sort of humor that kids can appreciate. When she laughs, she laughs at life.
Face to face, however, there is an elegant shyness about her and it takes a while for her to loosen up. When she does, the smiles come easily and the laughter -- never far behind the smile -- invites laughs from others. That might be at least part of the secret to the success of her work.
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." | November 1998
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.