Even though not much happens, this middle grade memoir is incredibly well written. While I Was Away is straightforward and plods along a bit, but author Waka T. Brown's writing really helps her story feel alive and genuine. Waka's thoughts, feelings, worries, perspectives, opinions, and entire inner world is beautifully realized. As a positive role model, Waka is a good daughter, friend, and student. She's insightful, honest, open, and fair. In all respects, Waka is a brave 12-year-old girl facing a scary situation. She must move to another country by herself and live there for five months. She will have a different home, go to a different school, hear a different language, be submersed in a different culture, customs, rules, and traditions. Brown's memoir also provides a great example of what it's like for many children who have feet in two or more cultures. Waka's racialized experiences in Japanese school in 1985 doesn't sound too different from what many children in American schools face.
Some readers might be shocked, however, by some of the parental behavior in this book. An author's note at the end explains, "What might be shocking to us now wasn't shocking in 1984, and what was shocking in 1984 wasn't back when my parents were children." Brown further explains that in Japan teachers today aren't allowed to hit their students, just as this isn't allowed in American schools. Unfortunately, some readers might end up wishing there was some way to mention this idea in the memoir proper, as without doing so (and combined with the only other reference to child abuse being one of Japanese parental abuse), some readers might get the impression that Japan or Asian nations are more archaic, harsh, abusive, "savage," inhumane, and/or not as civilized than their Western counterparts.