Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Wednesday, January 6, 2021: YA Maximum Shelf: Tokyo Ever After

Flatiron Books: Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

Flatiron Books: Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

Flatiron Books: Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

Flatiron Books: Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

Tokyo Ever After

by Emiko Jean

After finding success with a psychological thriller, then a historical fantasy, Emiko Jean turns to contemporary romance with absolutely delightful aplomb. While the "I'm really a princess" trope is an enduringly popular narrative theme, Jean's effervescent third novel, Tokyo Ever After, is a fresh, funny, emotive, inspiring and empowering #OwnVoices triumph.

Izumi Tanaka is an 18-year-old senior at Mount Shasta High School in a one-stoplight California town mostly known as a tourist gateway to summer hiking and winter skiing. She's one-quarter of the "Asian Girl Gang--AGG, for short," which includes her three pan-Asian BFFs: "In a town strung together with tie-dyes and confederate flags, one cannot afford to discriminate." She's been raised by her single mother, Hanako, a biology professor, who adorably calls her "Zoom Zoom." Izumi prefers Izzy among friends, but only because by third grade, her name had been "butchered enough" for her to want to "simplify" it.

Izzy knew little about her genesis, except the few details Hanako reluctantly revealed: that she was allegedly the result of a one-night stand with a don't-remember-his-name visiting Japanese student during Hanako's final year at Harvard. "But not a mistake... Never a mistake," Izzy was always assured. Growing up, Izzy "thought lots about [her] father." As a child, she "wished he was white," that both her parents were white. Her sobering realization as to why came early: because "white was beautiful... the color of my dolls and the models and families I saw on TV." She thought that the shortening of her name, "a paler skin color and a rounder eye-shape would have made [her] life so much easier, the world so much more accessible." For too much of her life, she has believed "I am not enough."

And then one spring afternoon, while Izzy is avoiding homework by rifling through Hanako's makeup (again), her friend Noora happens upon a never-before-noticed book on Hanako's nightstand, Rare Orchids of North America. The inscription, revealing unmistakable adoration and love, ends with "Yours, Makoto 'Mak'/ 2003"--the year of Izzy's birth. Even just saying "This could be my father" feels taboo to Izzy, but by noon the next day, Noora has remarkably sleuthed the truth: Izzy's "a dead ringer" for Makotonomiya Toshihito. That is, Japan's Imperial Highness Crown Prince Toshihito, the (still-unmarried) heir to the world's oldest monarchy. Once upon a time, he was indeed her mother's secret Harvard lover, but sharing an intense affair rather than a meaningless fling was still not enough for Hanako to disclose their progeny. Until now.

Suddenly, Izzy is now Her Imperial Highness Princess Izumi, and she's Tokyo-bound (in a first-class airline suite!) to meet a father she could never have imagined--not to mention her grandparents, the venerated Emperor and Empress of Japan. After growing up with no family on her mother's side, Izzy now has aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives--some who welcome her and some who won't. Beyond the nobility, what's with that imperial guard who hasn't left her side since their first meeting at San Francisco airport? Does he really need to be so judgy and impatient? And, well, "so good-looking it's borderline offensive?"

While Izzy is learning to navigate steep linguistic, cultural and regal learning curves, the public spotlight never dims. "Women royals are especially scrutinized," Hanako tried to warn her. "Everything is done under a magnifying glass." Quickly dubbed "The Lost Butterfly" by the press, the very discovery of Izzy's existence has been declared "the imperial scandal of the century." The tabloids aren't wrong: "How will this girl from small-town America adapt to the glitz and glamour of the imperial family?" they wonder. "Is she ready for the royal treatment?" After 18 years of living what she's now convinced was a lie, Izzy has mere weeks to figure out how, where and if she belongs with her new family in this absurdly beyond-privileged life. And, most important of all, will she ever feel comfortable in her thoroughly unexpected, rather overwhelming, new identity?

With savvy charm, Jean enhances an already entertaining fairytale with pointedly affecting depth. Izzy is no starry-eyed princess-in-the-making expecting a magical transformation on the other side of the world. Even as a fourth-generation Japanese American whose maternal family emigrated West almost a century ago, Izzy has never felt American enough. Her seventh-grade crush dissed her with "Sorry, I just don't find Asian chicks attractive." But even though she's paternally connected to the other side of the world, no one--least of all herself--considers her Japanese... yet.

In the midst of navigating family politics, falling--reluctantly, cautiously, then utterly--in first true love turns out to be just the right distraction. Guided by Jean's dual cultural fluency, Izzy's journey toward self-awareness and self-acceptance will be as much, if not more, essential to her happily-ever-after. To get there, she'll need to challenge assumptions, upend expectations and break a few centuries-old rules to become her own hero on her own terms. With hints of a Harry-and-Meghan sensibility, Tokyo Ever After is as much fun as American Royals--and Izumi's convincing brand of rebellion might be exactly what this ancient hierarchy needs for the modern age. --Terry Hong

Flatiron Books, $18.99, hardcover, 336p., ages 12-up, 9781250766601, May 25, 2021

Flatiron Books: Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

Emiko Jean: Searching for Belonging

(Susan Doupe Photography)

When Emiko Jean isn't writing, she's reading. Before she became a writer, she was an entomologist, a candlemaker, a florist and, most recently, a teacher. She is the author of Empress of All Seasons and We'll Never Be Apart. In her third novel, Tokyo Ever After (Flatiron Books, May 25, 2021), a California teen turns out to be a Japanese princess.

You're quite the literary chameleon--your first book was a psychological thriller, your second a historical Japanese fantasy and now this effervescent contemporary romance with a timeless "I'm really a princess" trope. What's the genesis here?

I have genre hopped, haven't I? But when you look at my work, there is a build there. Most deal with underrepresentation. I think Tokyo Ever After was a natural genesis. We just don't have a lot of Asian princesses, period. And growing up, I never saw myself represented in princess media. I think Tokyo Ever After felt really needed. When the concept came to me, it made a lot of sense that a Japanese princess YA book should exist in the world. I grew up in a pretty big Japanese community but didn't know until later in my life that Japan actually still had a royal family. When I learned that, it instantly made me think of The Princess Diaries (a movie I loved as a teen) and I wondered how that might look cast in Japan.

Did you have to think twice about fictionalizing an existing family/monarchy/history?

Yes. I knew about the royal family's role in WWII but I didn't realize they had continued with the monarchy until later in my life. I had to think carefully about what to put on the page, what to and how to recognize certain historical events and in what ways I wanted to represent them, and how this fictionalized monarchy responded to these events. In many ways, it was the same as how the current royal family rebuilt after the war. I did feel a heaviness, a pressure to represent that part of history, while keeping the novel fun and current.

How did you do the research? Do you speak/read Japanese? Any major surprises?

I don't speak any Japanese, other than the phrases my father yelled at me when I was young. (Ha!) I did a ton of research from royal biographies, actual memoirs, big historical books and some generic royal romances (my favorite!). One of the big surprises I wrestled with was the complex naming systems of the royal family, who are given very specific names and honorifics. I pulled in some friends from Japan with the help of my cousin who has a big network over there. They read drafts of the novel and helped with my translations.

Tokyo Ever After got you a new publisher, new imprint, new editor--and a spectacular preempt deal that made publishing news. What's that experience been like? What was it about this manuscript, do you think, that made the industry pay such attention?

It's been amazing. And also sort of surreal, much like a dream. But it has mostly been business as usual, revising Tokyo Ever After and working on the second book. I think Tokyo Ever After was very timely in that the industry has been looking for #OwnVoices novels with new perspectives. That it had such strong comps, The Princess Diaries and Crazy Rich Asians, made it so publishers understood the concept right away. I think it's also a fun book, and being whisked away to another "world" is really attractive. Royal stories and that peek behind the veil have always been popular.

Tokyo Ever After sure seems ready for a close-up: Has Hollywood come calling? Who might you choose for your dream cast?

The book has been optioned and there have been discussions. I wish I could give more details! Dream cast? I don't know, it's one of those things I try not to think about. I'm suspicious and afraid of getting my hopes up! But I'd love to see more Asians on screen, period.

I've heard a sequel is already in the works. Might we get a sneak peek?

I don't know if I can say too much about the plot of the second book! There will be more romance, more kissing... maybe some heartbreak. And definitely more insights into the royal family's customs, maybe even a royal wedding! Shoot, I've probably said too much!

The #OwnVoices movement encourages and values authenticity over appropriation. At some point, did you make a conscious decision in your writing that you would showcase your heritage?

I did. My first book, We'll Never Be Apart, had a white main character and that was purposeful. I didn't think it would be published using a Japanese character. But after that came out and the #OwnVoices movement began to gain traction, I decided to go for it and write a Japanese fantasy--which was like coming home. Being able to explore my heritage (in a magical way) was an incredibly enriching experience. And I don't think I would have been prepared to write Tokyo Ever After without it. I learned Japanese history first, then came a Japanese contemporary novel. From now on, I am very committed to writing Japanese American characters in my novels, showcasing them in all walks of life.

Did you ever have "I'm really a princess" fantasies yourself?

When I think of my younger self, it's kind of complicated. I did entertain the idea but I didn't let myself be too enthralled with [such fantasies]. Again, growing up and not seeing my skin, hair, eye color in literature or on film really closed that world off to me. So maybe I did wish to be a princess but never really considered it a possibility, or more that I felt ashamed by that desire to be a part of a world that was closed off.

With Tokyo Ever After hitting shelves in May, so many girls like us can dream, too!

Yes! Exactly. This is truly a book of my heart. And if you strip down the comps, Princess Diaries/Crazy Rich Asians, and the big publishing deal, it's really about a girl searching for where she belongs. It mirrors so much of my personal journey. I hope that's what readers will identify with. Every girl should be able to/have the right to dream BIG! --Terry Hong

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