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Monday, October 13, 2014

Review and Interview: Claire Youmans, author of The Toki-Girl and The Sparrow-Boy


I'm thrilled to share my Review of The Toki-Girl and The Sparrow-Boy with y'all and to have its author, Claire Youmans, stopping by for a chat...

The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy
by Claire Youmans
6/24/14

With their parents killed by an evil feudal overlord, who wants Azuki for the valuable feathers she produces when she is a Toki bird, Azuki feels she must flee. It’s all her fault, isn’t it? She is the one with the cursed ability to turn into a bird!

Shota, her brother, can become a sparrow, but nobody wants his plain brown feathers. Armed with information from their dying mother, he must reach his sister to tell her they will lose their inheritance and will no longer be able to live in human society unless they can return to claim it!

While Azuki searches for her Toki-kin, encountering Egrets, storms, a fierce mountain ogre and even a dragon, Shota, smaller, slower, follows a dream of his late father to track his sister to the Toki nesting grounds, discovering in himself a love of the sea, and a way to get them home in time.



Young Azuki and her brother Shota are not like regular children. Shota can transform into a sparrow and Azuki is a rare Toki bird. When Azuki is in Toki form she sheds beautiful and sought after white feathers. A greedy feudal overlord kills their parents and captures Azuki because he wants her feathers. This tragic event sets Azuki and Shota off onto two separate, but connected, wild journeys. 

The Toki-Girl and The Sparrow-Boy is an imaginative and unique tale full of captivating settings, mesmerizing fantastical elements, and unforgettable characters. Author Claire Youmans spins a truly lovely story. Set in a world that is both inspired by history and creatively crafted, The Toki-Girl and The Sparrow-Boy is rich in vivid details and brimming with intriguing elements of Japanese culture and folklore. Youmans has clearly done her research and wonderfully presents this half-true, half-made-up Japanese history to readers. From Toki-birds to a mountain ogre, sea dragon, and so much more, the fantastical elements in this book are wondrous and whimsical and fun! Young readers will be simply fascinated and inspired by both the historical and fantasy elements within The Toki-Girl and The Sparrow-Boy.

Azuki and Shota both go on a wild adventure full of perils, obstacles to be defeated, lessons to be learned, unexpected friends to make, and profound things to be discovered. These two bird-children make for wonderfully endearing and likable characters. Young readers will easily identify with Azuki and Shota and root for them to succeed. We also meet several other characters through-out The Toki-Girl and The Sparrow-Boy, whose stories intertwine with Azuki and Shota’s. I enjoyed getting to know Anko and Benjamin, but wish more time was spent on their story.

Azuki and Shota’s breathtaking journeys finally collide and find them on a desperate race back home together. I was a bit jolted by the rather abrupt ending, but Youmans does nicely set things up for a sequel with a surprising cliff-hanger.

I must mention the unique illustrations throughout The Toki-Girl and The Sparrow-Boy because all the awesome illustrations were actually created by young readers! How cool is that?!

My Final Thoughts: The Toki-Girl and The Sparrow-Boy is a captivating and entertaining mix of folklore, fairy-tale, fantasy, and thrilling history. A mix that Claire Youmans works with well and young readers will enjoy!

MY RATING

What three words best describe The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy?

 Exciting fantasy adventure.

Can you give us your best one sentence pitch to convince readers, especially reluctant readers, to give The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy?
The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow Boy is an exciting adventure featuring monsters, legends and history as two children who can become birds search for their places in the rapidly changing human world of Meiji-era Japan.

Grab a copy of The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy and answer the following:
favorite chapter?
I really enjoy the egrets in Chapter 7.  I love the way they squawk and dance!

favorite page?
Page 116, when Azuki is rescued by the Dragon Princess, is a great page!

favorite setting/place?
 I love the mountain valley that is Shota and Azuki’s home.  I actually found a real location that is right geographically, and is also as remarkably beautiful as I imagined it, when I visited Kyushu (the island where they are from) last summer.

flip to a random page and give us a 1-2 sentences teaser:
“Then she remembered her feather hair.  She couldn’t go into a human town looking like a bird-child.” (p. 54)

What inspired The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy? How did the story come to be?
Film director Yukita Kusunoki  (the award-winning Journey to Mt. Fuji, in which I was also involved) wrote a play called The Great Grateful Jizo.  I was involved in the production of the play, doing flipboard sets for the traveling group of players presenting the play.  In the play, Azuki and Shota are very minor characters, and the play itself covers only a small part of the events in the book.  The play then leaves these characters and jumps forward in time; it does not have a happy ending.  I loved these children and the use of slightly twisted folklore, so, with his permission, I took Azuki and Shota sideways in their own time to tell more of their story.  It’s such fun to work with the combination of the historical period, rich with change and opportunity, and the folklore of Japan to create a universe in which these characters can confront their obstacles and overcome them to live happy lives in which they can be entirely true to themselves.

Can you tell us a bit about your characters Azuki and Shota? What makes them special? What do you love about them?
First off, Azuki and Shota are birds who can turn into children — or the other way around!  That’s pretty special right there, though it is the source of many of their difficulties, since this isn’t a usual sort of thing.  Azuki is creative, curious, and likes to make things.  She’s an artist, intellectual and deep, given to analysis.  Shota is a happy soul, content with who he is, an adventurous explorer bent on discovering the world as well as finding his place in it.  I can picture myself walking on the beach with Azuki as she gathers shells, rocks and driftwood, working out a piece of art using her beautiful feathers.  I love and am awed by her artistry.  I can also see myself riding Blackie bareback through the forest, with Shota flying around my head, pointing out everything he sees, wanting to go here and there to check out everything new and interesting — and to Shota, everything is interesting!  I love his sense of fun!

What is your favorite mythical being explored in The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy? What mythical being, person, or story would you love to write about next?
The Dragon Princess, besides being a dual-natured being — she is both a girl and a dragon —  has to contend with parents of different dragon races who are living across the world from each other.  In Book Two, she’s going to bite off more than she can chew, and her father will need to come to her rescue.  An angry Dragon King isn’t somebody you want to encounter!  And then, concerned for his headstrong daughter, he decides he may have to talk to her mother.  That’s an even scarier prospect!

Can you tell us about the special illustrations in The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy and the unique way they were chosen?
Aren’t the illustrations wonderful?  The cover, by artist Franki Chan, perfectly captures the characters the way I see them — and I love the necktie on the Jizo, symbolizing the great changes taking place in Japan at that time.  The interior illustrations come from talented young artists who submitted portfolios to a contest, won by vote, and each illustrated a different chapter.  I am thrilled to see such interest in the book among its audience, and the wonderful way they captured their chosen chapters.  I want to do this again for Book Two and beyond.  Great talent, and great fun.

If you could switch places with any book character for just one day, who would you choose and what would you do as them?
 If I had a day to be anybody in my universe — oh, this is hard!  I want to be the Dragon Princess, and soar through the clouds and under the sea to her father’s palace.  I want to be Azuki, creating a fabulous fabric, alight with creative joy.  I want to be Shota, fearless, joyously flying amidst the rigging of a ship.  Can I have three days?  Maybe more?

Fill in the blanks:
I’m really awesome at I am an awesome sailor and skier — and a pretty darned good writer, artist and poet, too.

I’m really embarrassed to admit I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t keep up with popular culture much, and I rarely watch TV.  When I do, it’s mostly history, science and cooking shows — the kind where people actually cook things, because I like food science, though there is nothing embarrassing about being a fan of Alton Brown!

The last great book I read was The last truly great book I read, one which I think will stand the test of time as literary fiction, is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.  I don’t mean the film, though I think they did a decent job with an impossible subject — I mean the book.  It’s a difficult book, because of the time and characters switches, but the universe and philosophies it evokes make one think and take the reader to places I, at least, could never imagine.

If you were to bake and create a cupcake inspired by The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy, what would it look and taste like, and what would you call it?
 Hmmm.  They don’t have cupcakes in traditional Japanese cuisine, as far as I know.  Japanese bakers have become particularly fluent in European baking, though, not only keeping to traditional French, Italian and Austrian recipes, but creating new recipes using traditional Japanese ingredients.  I would call my cupcake “Earth and Sky,” and it would be made of a light, airy French style white cake, not too sweet, with a filling — not too much -- of sweet white bean paste (try it — it’s really good!  Tastes like chestnuts.)  There would be more sweet white bean paste, rolled out and layered like marzipan, on top, and that would be studded with fresh wild strawberries.  I may need to try making this — it sounds awfully good!


Thank you so much for stopping by, Claire!


Claire Youmans is an accomplished adult non-fiction and mystery writer who has also written and edited innumerable articles, engaging audiences for over 20 years. With a deep love for Japan and its culture, Claire has traveled there extensively studying the country’s culture and folklore. She worked as a creative consultant on the award-winning international feature film Journey to Mt. Fuji, produced by Sasanquafilms. She continues to consult for Sasanquafilms, which expects to begin production on a new film in 2014. 

Claire has returned to the more complex world of novels, but now for a younger audience. While working on a play produced in Tokyo, The Great Grateful Jizo, Claire was so inspired by two minor characters -- Azuki, a Toki-Girl, and her brother, Shota, a Sparrow-Boy -- that she expanded their story into The Toki Girl and the Sparrow Boy. With generous doses of adventure, suspense, folklore and fantasy, Claire has brought their visually compelling story into book form. 

The Toki Girl and the Sparrow Boy is the first in a series of books recounting their adventures. With further books in development, Claire is returning to Japan for more inspiration and motivation to bring that nation’s beauty and culture to life for young readers through its traditional folklore. 

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