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Behind the Book: The Mochi Makers

last updated 14 March 2024

We chatted with Sharon Fujimoto-Johnson, debut author-illustrator of The Mochi Makers, publishing March 19th by Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster.) The Mochi Makers is an incredibly heart-warming and personal book about the importance of family, tradition, and remembering those who came before us. Kirkus gave it a starred review calling it, “a storytelling treat to be savored among family.”

“I was instantly intrigued by Sharon’s childlike images and appealing palette. Her relationship with her grandmother was palpable in her art and as I read her story, her words were drenched with love. I am honored to represent her and so delighted to find her publishing home at Beach Lane Books.” -Sharon’s agent, Anne Moore Armstrong.

Lucky for us, Sharon shares with us the inspiration and process behind creating such a special book.


How did the idea for Mochi Makers come to you? Have you known that this was going to be your debut author-illustrated?

I wrote the earliest drafts of this story when I was struggling with severe complications from cancer treatment. For several months, I was unable to eat anything by mouth and was nourished by liquid nutrition that was pumped through a line that ran from my arm through a vein to my heart. This was during the COVID-19 pandemic when anti-Asian hate crimes had more than doubled in America. Even though I couldn’t eat, creating this book gave me a way to savor mochi, a food that is very special to Japanese and Japanese American cultures. Of all the stories I had been working on, this felt like the one, because I was able to lean into my own family stories and celebrate a world that looks a lot like the one my own children know. I hope that readers of all backgrounds can feel welcome and at home in this world. title

Walk us through how you began piecing the story together with the illustrations. Being that you wrote this story, did you find it was easier to envision what you wanted the illustrations to look like?

I really wanted to create a world that felt true to me. So much of this story takes place in Obaachan’s kitchen, so I wanted to include elements that one might find in a typical Japanese American kitchen–such as my own kitchen—–like a rice cooker, a rice-washing colander, cooking chopsticks, and pantry items like dried kombu, pickled plums, and shiitake mushrooms. Some of these elements are mentioned in the text; others are not. Hopefully all of these details in the art work together to create a full and enticing world in which this story takes place. I remember my art director encouraging me to let the characters make a mess in the kitchen, and it was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me in realizing that visual storytelling is not just creating scenes but allowing the characters to really live in the pages of the book.

Because The Mochi Makers is inspired by my own family stories, my vision of this book slowly developed and became clearer throughout the process. It felt like letting light into a room and one’s eyes adjusting to see all the details in the space and realizing one is at home. I’m so thankful for my agent, Anne Moore Armstrong, who has helped me grow artistically, as well as my art director whose guidance has helped me develop my visual storytelling skills.


This story has an incredible color palette. Where did you draw inspiration for the colors from?

I wanted the color palette for this book to reflect the hues and color combinations of Japanese art and textiles, which hum with a slightly different energy from Western color palettes. I brought together the colors of traditional mochi, like cherry blossom pink and mugwort green, with crimson red from a kimono obi that I inherited from my mother and golden saffron from a baby dress crochet by my grandmother. Throughout the book, I also layered textures from family fabrics like my mother’s kimono and kitchen cloths embroidered by my grandmother. Adding this layer of color and texture from family fabrics was probably my favorite part of the illustration process.


Do you have a favorite flavor of mochi?

I think many people think mochi is a frozen dessert with a center of ice cream in various flavors like matcha, mango, chocolate, or strawberry. While mochi ice cream is probably the most well-known kind of mochi in America, it was actually invented in America by a Japanese American woman. There are actually many different types of traditional mochi. It can be sweet or savory or plain. It is often filled with a sweet red bean paste. Sometimes it is rolled in soy bean powder. A traditional breakfast on New Year’s Day is a squishy slice of mochi dropped into a savory vegetable soup. I’m still coping daily with damage from cancer treatment and am very limited in what I can eat. But if I could eat mochi again, I think my favorite flavor would be plain, freshly-pounded mochi dipped in soy sauce and wrapped in seaweed, just like Ojiichan in my book.


There’s a spread from the book where Emi and Obaachan are looking at a family photo album. Are any of these images tied to your own family history?

The photos on that spread are my own family photos. On my father’s side, I’m a fourth generation Japanese American. These photos include my great-grandmothers who were among the first generation of my family to immigrate to America—and thus, my family’s first mochi makers in America. This spread also includes my grandparents’ wedding portrait, as well as photos of my grandmother as a little girl, my father and his brothers as children, and even my mother and me dressed in kimono. I love that my family history is honored in this spread and also that some people very special to me are acknowledged in the labels on the package mochi in another spread. I hope all of these personal details add depth to the visual storytelling and that Emi and Obaachan’s warm connection invites readers to think of the people who are special to them in their lives. The process of making this book was such a joy-filled gift for me. I’m so thrilled to share this book—made with love, just like mochi—with family, friends, and readers everywhere and hope that they will, in turn, will feel inspired to share it with their loved ones.


What would you like young readers to take away from Mochi Makers?

I hope that the sweet world in The Mochi Makers reminds readers everywhere that simple joys can be the most meaningful of all. Emi and Obaachan share a beautiful tradition that has been passed down to them through the hands of mochi makers before them. In carrying on this tradition, they make tasty gifts to share with family, friends, and neighbors. I hope that readers of all ages are inspired to relish these kinds of moments in their own lives–perhaps even by becoming mochi makers themselves! (There’s a simple mochi recipe in the back matter of this book for families to try together.)


To work with Sharon, get in touch with Anne Moore Armstrong here.

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