Misa Sugiura's ancestors include a poet, a priestess, a samurai, and a stowaway. She writes contemporary young adult and middle grade fiction, and lives under a giant oak tree with her husband, two sons, two cats, and a gray-banded king snake. You can find her online at MisaSugiura.com
Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind (Penguin Random House)
In this fast-paced fantasy adventure, Momo discovers that her mother is a Shinto goddess and embarks on a quest to find a legendary sword. Students from Buckie High School asked author Misa Sugiura to tell us more about the Japanese mythology and a legendary warrior that helped inspire Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind, and to explain how her characters developed. Misa also gives a short reading from the novel.
Q&A with Misa Sugiura:
1. What brought you into writing for young people, and what was your first book called?
Nine years ago, I was at a crossroads in my life, and I asked myself the question, "What dream would I pursue if I weren't afraid to fail?" The answer was "Write and publish a book". Strangely, it had never occurred to me before that moment that this was something I wanted to do.
My first book was a young adult novel about a Japanese American girl who falls in love with her Mexican American cross country teammate. I wrote two more novels for older teens before I felt ready to start on Momo's story.
2. What inspired that book, Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind?
A long time ago, I saw a TV series about a real-life 12th century Japanese warrior, and part of the story involved the loss of a legendary sword that was supposedly a gift from the goddess of the sun. When I first decided to try writing a book, I wanted to write a fantasy adventure story that would give my two sons a way to connect to Japan, which is where my parents are from. And I knew that I wanted it to center around finding that legendary sword. It took me a few years to get around to writing it, but I finally did it!
3. What happens in the story?
On her 12th birthday, Momo learns that her mother is a Shinto goddess - the guardian of a portal between the earth and Yomi, the land of the dead. Demons from Yomi are staging an attack on earth and on her mother's life, and Momo is the only one who can stop them. She teams up with Niko (a talking fox) and Danny, her former best friend, to track down a legendary sword that will help her defeat the demons. Along the way, she meets giant centipedes, crab warriors, a god who wears a bathrobe, a ghost emperor, and other characters from Japanese legends and religion. Thematically, the book is about friendship, self-worth, anger, fear, and family.
4. Can you tell us about your main character, Momo? How do her experiences reflect your own experiences as a child, particularly in terms of her cultural heritage?
Momo is a smart, sensitive girl who doesn't fit in with her peers - partly because her mom is unusual and has brought her up in a way that makes her unusual, too, and partly because Momo's at an age where kids are starting to try to act the same as each other, but she only knows how to be her unusual self. She has a lot of anger inside, and she doesn't know how to handle it, but she is also much stronger than she realizes.
Momo is a lot like my middle-grade self when I was a highly imaginative Japanese American kid growing up in a mostly white town. I was different because of my parents' background, and I was also different because I was often lost in my own made-up world. Like Momo, I hated feeling like an outsider, but I also didn't want to change myself just to fit in. Like Momo, I swung between being proud of my heritage and being ashamed of it.
5. How did you decide on your supporting characters, Niko and Danny? What do they bring to the story?
Momo's greatest weaknesses are her anger and her fear of abandonment, and one of her deepest desires is to feel like she belongs, so it made perfect sense to pair her with Danny, who she's angry at because he abandoned her for a cooler friend group. Danny also makes a great foil for Momo because he's outgoing and confident while she's shy and awkward, and impulsive while she's anxious and hesitant. He challenges her to move ahead when she wants to hang back.
As for Niko - what's a fantasy adventure story without a talking animal companion? But also, Momo needed a guide, and I thought it would be fun if her guide was a little unreliable. Niko can be grumpy and selfish, but he loves Momo and would do anything for her.
6. Can you tell us about the Japanese mythology you draw on in Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind?
The gods in the book mostly come from the Shinto tradition, which is Japan's native religion. Shinto is an animistic religion - it sees everything in the natural world as having a spirit, like the ancient Greek and Native American religions. Those spirits are called kami. There's a mother and father kami, and all their kids: a kami for each mountain and little island, a kami of volcanoes, a kami of rice, a kami of the sun, etc. There are also kami of intangible things like laughter, thought, and music.
There's a bit of Buddhist lore sprinkled into some of the kami's backstories, because the two religions have been around for so long (over 1500 years) that they occasionally mix themselves up with each other. And the yōkai, or monsters and creatures, are a mashup of Shinto stories, Buddhist stories, and local folktales.
7. Did you learn abou these myths or mythical characters as a child? What was it like bringing some of these to life as an adult?
I actually didn't learn any Shinto stories as a child, which is one reason why I decided to write a book about them. Even my parents didn't know them very well. One of the central beliefs in Shinto is that the emperor of Japan is descended from the gods, and after World War II, the American occupying forces wanted to make sure to stamp out that belief. So they told Japanese schools to purge the stories from school books and libraries. My dad actually remembers sitting in class and crossing out sections of his textbooks with thick black marker under the guidance of his teacher.
I did know about some of the yōkai, though, from storybooks that my parents gave me. I loved the kappa (a water creature who sucks the bone marrow out of its victims) and tengu (bird-men, basically), and magic sea turtle, so it was really fun to give them personalities and individual quirks.
8. If you could be a half-goddess, like Momo, which god would you want one of your parents to be?
I can't decide between Uzume, the goddess of laughter, dance, and drums; Omopikane, the god of wisdom and good ideas; and Benzaiten, the goddess of music and words.
9. Do you have further adventures planned for Momo and her friends?
I do! The Sword of the Wind (aka Kusanagi) is one of three sacred treasures handed down to the earthly emperor from the sun goddess. I am nearly finished writing the next Momo adventure, in which she might have to chase down another one of those treasures . . .
10. How do your adventures take shape - do you plan, or just write, and how long does it take you to finish a novel? What's your favourite part of writing?
I spend a lot of time writing notes on my characters: their strengths, weaknesses, fears, desires, etc. I also work out the big plot points ahead of time. It takes me about a year from the planning stage to a finished first draft (and then another few months to revise). Planning/outlining is my favorite part of writing a novel, because anything's possible and I haven't run into any problems. After that, it's alternately thrilling and excruciating.
More about Misa Sugiura
What's your most precious possession?
My mother's recipe for lebkuchen, or German honey-sweetened gingerbread. She used it to make gingerbread houses for me and my siblings when we were little, and she passed it in to me with her notes and tips written at the end. Making it reminds me of her and of my childhood.
If you could choose one thing to be famous at, what would it be?
Writing! But barring that, then singing or acting (which I can't do very well, so I guess I'll have to stick with writing).
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
I really love where I live right now, which is near San Francisco, California. But if I had to choose somewhere else to live, I think I'd choose Boulder, Colorado, which is in the mountains. I'd miss the ocean and the warm winters of California, but I'd get to ski more, so that might make up for it.