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The Power of Perseverance

NC State staffer Tomeko Brown shares the story of how she became an award-winning author during a time of great transition — and transformation — in her life.

Tomeko Brown with a copy of her book at a bookstore

Voices is a series of first-person narratives written by members of the NC State community reflecting on experiences that have shaped their personal and professional lives. Tomeko Brown, a University Temporary Services employee currently on assignment with the Center for Family and Community Engagement, recently won two awards for her book, “An Instrument for Florenda”: the Mom’s Choice Awards Gold Award and a second place award in the chapter books category of the 2022 Royal Dragonfly Book Awards. Here, in her own words, Brown shares the story of how her book came to life.

After a decade working in healthcare, I took a career break in 2019 to focus on my family and myself, and to get a breather from full-time work. That’s when I discovered University Temporary Services at NC State, and I thought it would be a good way to gradually work my way back into higher education. I had experience in the public school system, and I had also been an adjunct faculty member at Wake Tech, so the idea of working on assignments for NC State was very appealing to me.

I began taking various temporary jobs at the university in July 2019, and I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to work in different departments across campus. Then the pandemic hit, and I stopped working to take care of my family and help my daughter with her online schooling.

In 2021, I returned to the university as a remote training assistant for the Center for Family and Community Engagement, then I served as a COVID-19 contact tracer with the Division of Academic and Student Affairs until March 2022. That was such a vulnerable, difficult time for everyone, and I got to see up close how NC State really cares for its students and employees. I knew this was an environment I wanted to be part of.

During that time of transition, I also started writing again. It’s been a lifelong passion of mine — I used to write poems and songs as a child, and I had started a book manuscript in 2018. It just felt right, during that time of refocusing, to pick it back up and finish telling the story.

Tomeko Brown headshot
Tomeko Brown says she hopes her book, “An Instrument for Florenda,” inspires children to pursue and achieve their dreams.

The idea for the book came from me playing the clarinet. I enjoy the arts — I love drawing and crafting, and I still play the clarinet. My son, Chris, also played, and his input and experiences were so valuable in shaping this story, “An Instrument for Florenda.” It was wonderful working with my son as a co-author and incorporating his perspective on various elements of the story.

The book is about a middle-school aged girl and her love for the clarinet. She has grown up in an environment where she’s accustomed to hearing the sounds of jazz and gospel music, so she becomes interested in learning how to play the instrument — encountering plenty of challenges along the way.

I wanted to take my experience of learning to play the clarinet, as well as my background working with elementary school students, and intertwine them into a book that would inspire children to pursue and achieve their own dreams.

Some of the editorial reviews I’ve received have focused on the book’s themes of persistence and tenacity, and that makes me so happy. I want this book to teach kids to keep going — that even though challenges may come, just keep working hard, and you can achieve your goals. I want children to see themselves in Florenda and learn from her experiences.

Perseverance also defines the process of bringing this book to life. I did pretty much everything by myself. I have a degree in design, so that came in handy when creating promotional materials. I did all the marketing and reached out to libraries all over the country. The book’s success has been so deeply rewarding, in large part because I worked so hard on it.

Another big theme of the book is community. I grew up in a small town, on a street where everyone looked out for each other. I remember when I was a child, our home burned down in a fire. Almost instantly, our neighbors visited us at the house we were staying in temporarily, bringing food and donating clothes and other household necessities. And some of them were people in the neighborhood who we didn’t even know. So it was important to me to weave the theme of community into my book through the characters of Florenda’s neighbors.

photo college of Tomeko Brown's bookstore visit
Tomeko Brown visits Letters Bookshop in Durham, North Carolina, with her daughter.

It’s been such an honor to write and publish this book, and I’m so thankful to see it being carried in libraries across the United States and Canada. It’s amazing to me that I’m able to share this story with children throughout the world, because it was something that I never went searching for. It is still almost a shock.

It brings me so much joy just to share my experience. My family is very important to me, and being able to share something like this with them also has been amazing. We went to a local bookstore and found my book on the shelf. Of course, I introduced myself to the staff and took pictures. On my LinkedIn profile, I now have a photo of my 11-year-old daughter holding up mommy’s book. It’s hard not to become emotional — it brings tears. To be able to share that with my daughter and to let her know dreams do come true, no matter what, it means the world to me.