American writer and Tokyo resident Melissa Uchiyama realized the importance of encouragement from an early age. As a child growing up in Arizona and Florida, Uchiyama loved music, lyrics, nature, dance and art. By fifth grade, however, she knew that she was a “word person” and decided that she would be a writer.
When she typed up her first poem and showed it to her teacher, however, Uchiyama’s poem was thrust back at her, full of red markings and corrections. It wasn’t until she was a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that she found teachers who supported her writing, and have found them, she flourished.
Uchiyama’s writing has appeared in numerous publications including The Washington Post, LA Review of Books, Kyoto Journal and anthologies such as Mothering Through the Darkness. She is also an educator. When she’s not at school she conducts day camps through her organization Tokyo Kids Write, in which budding authors, playwrights, food writers, actors and other creatives have a chance to interact with experts in these fields and explore their crafts in a supportive environment.
Savvy Tokyo talked with Uchiyama about how this project got started and what she has in store for kids in Tokyo in the near future.
How did you come up with the idea for Tokyo Kids Write? How and when did you get started?
I don’t recall the moment of inception, but I had this idea that as authors, we could soar while supporting other writers, children and their families. I went to a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) event back in 2012 where I met Japan-based writers like Holly Thompson, Leza Lowitz and Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu. There I wondered, how could I take advantage of such talent and experience?
Since moving to Japan, I have worked in a brilliant American kindergarten seeing child-led projects take shape. I also began my work as a roving reading and writing specialist, traveling from home to home to assist and enrich young people and support their learning. I began publishing more of my own work as well, from essays in anthologies about mothering abroad and essays in literary magazines to poems and travel/food writing. I knew that I could bridge my experiences and desire to reach more kids with the power of writing.
Tell us about Tokyo Kids Write…
Tokyo Kids Write is a program for children aged eight to 15 designed to stoke a lasting fire in young writers. As a classroom teacher, both in public and private schools, I know that teachers are on deadlines in terms of how quickly they must move from task to task and how the curriculum is shaped by teams. In Tokyo Kids Write, like my own private work with young people, we get to decide what materials reach each particular student. We explore enriching genres and work with a prolonged focus on a writing piece or project similar to how “real,” professional writers spend their time—pursuing the craft of writing (all of the skills and parts that go into a well-written piece) and the holistic process that is brainstorming, exploring the “what ifs,” jotting down thoughts, notes, researching and moving through each step, rereading and tweaking, towards publishing and beyond.
We take pride in our community. Students from both international and Japanese schools share and contribute ideas and writings together. What adds to that is the fact that I bring in authors and editors such as award-winning author Holly Thompson and Japan Times food writer Joan Bailey too. The students suddenly have an ally—a real writer, who wrote the very book they’re reading. They can immediately identify with a book that they otherwise might not have picked.
What were the challenges, if any, of starting this enterprise?
I am full of ideas and want to jump on them but I can be slowed down by the business end of things. There is so much to follow up on with parents and young writers. Then there’s also marketing and social media that needs to showcase what we are doing. All of it takes time. I am also a mother to three.
What have been some of the rewards?
With these TKW camps and my private work with kids, I have seen hesitant, reluctant readers and writers flourish. They become kids who pore over books, engage with material and authors, and write. Parents tell me that for the first time in their life, their kids are voluntarily picking up their notebooks to write. Everyone is excited.
What do you have planned for the future of Tokyo Kids Write?
Last spring I launched The Sunday Club, a bimonthly group for young writers to meet, collaborate and write. With this club, we avoid losing the momentum from our camps and instead can continuously regain and gather it. Although The Sunday Club is a welcoming group, to uphold the rigorous, native-level experience, parents share handwritten writing samples and discuss whether The Sunday Club is the right fit for their child. However, I also work one-on-one with students of all levels in-person and via Zoom.
I plan to launch a TKW podcast where we show snippets of our conversations within the camp as well as The Sunday Club. We plan to chat with illustrators, translators and authors. I hope to create a space online where kids all over the world can submit their work and our TKW/Sunday Club kids will work as the editors. We will invite writings with specific and general prompts through the podcast and hold picture contests with judges of international renown. This is a longer-term goal that I will require greater help with.
I have other strong ideas simmering—specific workshops and programs that reach teens and other genres and writers. I must keep some of these on the back burner for now, but keep a lookout for our college entrance essay workshops and ongoing weekly “camps.”
Do you have any programs planned for adults?
Adults have asked about creative writing workshops and practices as they want access to authors too. Many adults tell me that they used to write for pleasure, but with work and parenting, there just isn’t time. Or they say that they used to want to be a writer and have held onto seed ideas for decades. I would love to encourage these writers in the future, too. (Refer to Uchiyama’s website linked below to sign up for her newsletter and receive updates.)|
Anything else you’d like to add?
Knowing that a considerable amount of young people in Japan face depression or other mental illnesses prompted me to teach from a place of love. Writing, like other forms of art, is special. As teachers of the arts, we have an ability to see into people’s minds and hearts—the real stuff, the way people think and feel and help them transform as they feel safe and grow their craft. Writing is a miraculous connector that invites miraculous work.
Savvy Spotlight is a monthly feature introducing foreign and Japanese women at the frontline of what’s successful, contributing, cool, unique and interesting in the city. If you have anyone in mind you would like us to interview, leave us a comment below with your recommendations!