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Melissa Uchiyama: Sparking creativity in young minds

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By SUZANNE KAMATA

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 having found them, she flourished. 

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The TKW team of writers and actors plan to create live theater on an ongoing basis. Photo: Melissa Uchiyama

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.

Click here to read more.

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