“Asian Pride” in Kid Lit

7 Aug 2015 news 6 Comments
Welcome back! The response to Part 1 of our roundtable was so positive that I decided to host Part 2 on my blog once more. I’d like the conversation to be continued with an Asian American moderator, so this will be my last time facilitating. Sarah Park Dahlen, Sona Charaipotra, and Mike Jung have returned as respondents, and we welcome Sandhya Nankani and Janine Macbeth to the roundtable.


A confluence of events led me to write the prompt for Part 2. First, I had a frustrating and confusing experience with a very talented freelance illustrator in Hong Kong whom I hired for a picture book about winter in NYC. I specified in my job posting that I wanted illustrations of diverse kids done in the style of Ezra Jack Keats, and she did not disappoint. But when all the illustrations were completed, I pointed out that none of the children were Asian. I asked her to replace some of the white children but the revised illustrations showed no change. So I sent a few samples of US artists’ illustrations of Asian children but when the revised images arrived, there was still no change. I finally had to give her an ultimatum and she added three children to the book who were clearly Asian. When I went back through this artist’s portfolio, I realized that the children I had assumed were white might actually have been Asian according to her particular (or regional? cultural?) aesthetic.

A week later I saw this summary of Korean American comedian Margaret Cho’s appearance on Late Night with Seth Myers. In discussing the Black Lives Matter movement, Cho said:
“The hardest thing is, I am so down with all of the protests against police violence and police brutality — it’s something we’ve been dealing with,” she then explained. “It’s not just Eric Garner, it’s not just Baltimore; for me, it goes back to Amadou Diallo and Rodney King. But whenever white and black people fight, Asians and Mexicans don’t know what to do. Because we’re like, ‘Umm, are we white?’ We just want to be on the winning side.”
When I posted this quote from the interview on Facebook, a South Asian friend commented: “Which Asians is she talking about?” I was wondering the same thing! A few days later Ranier Maninding, who runs the provocative Facebook page The Love Life of an Asian Guy, argued that cultural appropriation is unacceptable except when it provides Asian Americans an alternative to assimilation into the dominant (white) culture:
When Asians immigrate to the United States they are given a choice: assimilate into American culture or continue doing things the traditional Asian way. One option will help you make friends while the other lands you in a pot of nasty Asian stereotypes.

“LOL! Ewww, what the hell are you eating for lunch? Is that dog? Why do you talk funny? CHING CHONG CHING CHONG! LOL CAN YOU EVEN SEE ME?!”

Get picked on or get along with the kids at school? OBVIOUSLY you’re gonna assimilate! The choice is clear but the next one isn’t. The next decision you have to make as an assimilating Asian is, “Should I assimilate with white communities or Black ones?” This decision is influenced by who you live near and what type of media you consume. Since most Asians immigrate to New York or California — areas with large Black communities — they inevitably side with Black folks.
“Are those really the only choices?” I wondered. And lastly, I saw this article, “7 Books about Growing Up Asian-American I Wish I’d Had as a Kid,” and speculated that more like it will be published in ten, twenty, or even thirty years if so many Asian American kid lit creators continue to write outside their race. What do you think? Our 5 respondents once again share their opinions and offer us more food for thought…
Me: The Black Arts Movement of the 1960s helped to promote feelings of “Black pride” among African Americans; the distinct physical traits of African people were celebrated as Blacks throughout the diaspora resisted colonization by rejecting white beauty standards and assimilation into the dominant culture. Novels like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (in which a dark-skinned Black girl yearns for blue eyes) exposed the devastating effects of internalized racism, and popular singers like James Brown urged his fans to, “Say it loud–I’m Black and I’m proud!”
Clark Doll Test 2In the Black community here in the US, we have experience with and language for those who are white-identified: sellout, Uncle Tom, race traitor. Individuals who fail to display “loyalty to the race” can find themselves publicly shamed, though many African Americans continue to support Black celebrities who become thinner, blonder, and lighter as they “crossover” to the mainstream. Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese tackles issues of identity, shame, and belonging, yet as we saw in the CCBC chart, many Asian/Pacific American kid lit creators are still choosing to write outside their race.
What impact does this creative decision have on Asian American youth? If the Clarks’ famous “doll test” was recreated with Asian American instead of African American children, what results would you expect? Consider the aesthetic promoted by manga and anime, and the growing demand for eyelid surgery (“Westernization of the eyelid”) in Asia and the US. If Asian American youth find fewer “mirrors” in the children’s literature they consume, where do they learn to appreciate their own image? What role–if any–can kid lit creators play in promoting “Asian pride?” How would such a movement/message be received within your community?
litsafari-snSandhya: As a child growing up in India and Ghana, the only South Asian characters I encountered in books and stories were mythological and historical ones. I don’t think I met characters who looked like me until I was well into my teens, and those were in adult novels!
The lack of mirrors of myself in the kid lit I consumed impacted me in many and deep ways. Since most of the stories I read were about children with curly blonde hair and blue-eyes, those were the first characters that I created in my own first stories and well into my adolescent years. It never even occurred to me that children who looked like me could be the star attraction of a story. As a child, I would look at my hands and proudly notice that even though they were brown on the outside, they were creamy white on the inside; really, I wasn’t so different after all, was I?


It took a very long time for me to think of myself as beautiful or attractive; something I think about every single day as the mother of a 6 year old who is growing up in a drastically different, multicultural world. Brown is beautiful, I can say to her millions of times, but I realize that it’s not words that matter as much as my making sure that she regularly gets to encounter representations of herself in books, apps, movies, and TV shows.

Exactly ten years ago, I received a fellowship from the Asian American Writers Workshop to work on a literature research project. My task was to sift through—over a period of six months—middle grade and YA literature by and about Asian Americans and to make recommendations for pieces that could be included in the Elements of Literature textbooks anthologies that were being published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston (now, Holt McDougal). This was 2005, a time when Asian American was typically synonymous with East Asian and where published kid lit South Asian characters and writers were few and far between. I remember ordering chapbooks, scouring the Internet, and sifting through anthologies for adults in search of pieces that would be appropriate for young audiences. It was quite the challenge.

photo-originalThe landscape—and I am limiting myself to discussing characters of South Asian descent (Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, etc.)—is drastically different now, I am happy to report. Enormous strides were made in the last decade. The now defunct Parent’s Choice award-winning Kahani magazine launched many rising children’s authors and illustrators of South Asian descent. A wave of middle grade and young adult historical fiction set in India or the Indian disaspora brought strong female protagonists to life, and as the recent South Asian Book Award winners shows, kid lit has expanded to include non-historical characters as well. Another interesting trend is the number of independent publishing companies both here in the US and in South Asia such as Gnaana, Tara Books, Tullika, Little GuruSkool, and Bharat Babies formed to create books, apps, and games that speak to and represent the South Asian child and his or her cultural experience. I’ll be damned, but there is even a Kickstarter that recently funded the South Asian American Digital Archive’s (SAADA) Our Stories, a history textbook that will capture and share the stories of important South Asian Americans, many of whom exerted incredible influence over 130 years of American history, but who often went unnoticed and unrecorded in history books.

I am heartened.

And yet, I know that despite the fact that though there are more mirrors for South Asian children today, they remain mirrors that have to be sought after, are primarily created by independents and, at the end of the day, are subject to the BIG challenge of discoverability.

safari_2This is especially true for the world of children’s digital content where Jamie Naidoo and Sarah Park in their book Diversity Programming for Digital Youth point out that “a glance through the iTunes store reveals that most apps are created with a monocultural child in mind — the white, middle-­‐class child. Essentially the “All-­‐White World of Children’s Books” with the aid of digital enhancements has now morphed into the “All-­‐White World of Children’s Apps.”

I think about this every single day and it is what has driven me to help co-found Diversity with Apps, an interdisciplinary coalition inspired by We Need Diverse Books. Our goal is to support the creation of diverse and inclusive children’s digital media products through research, best practices, and collaboration.

As someone rooted in the world of creating children’s content, I have the access and tools to find new and interesting things like Peter Gould’s series of apps for Muslim kids or Storied Myth’s diverse cast of characters that include Luv and Kush, clearly South Asian kids. But what about the parent who is so busy with work and school paperwork and for whom downloading an app or picking up a library book is just about selecting from what’s on display or featured? What happens to those children? They fall into the valley of blonde-haired, blue-eyed, peach-color crayons—and it is up to us as creators, editors, distributors, and reviewers of children’s content to make sure that they have a way out.

Sandhya Nankani is founder of Literary Safari, a literacy company committed to creating inclusive children’s content apps that celebrate storytelling while supporting 21st century skills such as problem solving, creativity, and social-­emotional learning.


SarahSarah: If the Clarks’ doll test was recreated with Asian Americans, I believe the results would be similar – we would choose dolls with bigger eyes and lighter skin. We don’t need to replicate the test; the amount of money Koreans and Korean Americans pour into cosmetic surgery, skin lightening creams, etc., speaks for itself.

We are told through media that we are not beautiful, and that our value and usefulness are determined by our sexual attractiveness to those who wish to consume our bodies (see “Problematic Representations of Asian American Gender and Sexuality,” chapter 04, in Kent Ono and Vincent Pham’s Asian Americans and the Media). When I was in graduate school, The Last Samurai movie was about to premiere near campus, so someone from the studios sent out a request to UCLA students for “beautiful Asian women” who would dress in ancient Japanese garb and mingle at the premiere’s after party. This is what Hollywood wants us to do: be beautiful, be a prop, be the quiet, submissive subject of the white man’s gaze. So if Hollywood has an ambivalent and controlling relationship with Asian American beauty, it is no wonder that young adult literature is beginning to address Asian American body image issues. The double TheFoldeyelid surgery – a popular surgery where a cut in the skin creates a fold in the double eyelid – is a major plot point in both An Na’s The Fold and Laura Williams’ Slant (though Slant uses problematic language and I found it to be a less satisfying read). Through these books, young readers can learn about the surgery.

But readers learn about it, and then what? Do they conclude that Korean women are shallow? Korean women’s obsession with western beauty did not emerge in a vacuum, nor does it thrive in one. In her dissertation, Sharon Heijin Lee ‘[locates] the Korean beauty aesthetics within a genealogy of imperial racial formation,” mapping how the seemingly discrete spheres of “popular and consumer culture, medicine, tourism, the military and other governmental institutions” actually work together in a racial project (see Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s Racial Formations in the United States) to convince Korean women – and men, in their policing of the female body – that western features are more desirable (“The (Geo)Politics of Beauty: Race, Transnationalism, and Neoliberalism in South Korean Beauty Culture,” 2012). And while books such as The Fold and Slant can combat the barrage of messages that rounder eyes are more beautiful, are two books on a single topic enough? No, of course not. Asian Americans – and all readers – need a variety of stories in order for the diversity of our experiences to be better understood. As well, at least in terms of body image, there is more than just the issue of double eyelids. Asian Americans – both male and female and other – struggle with weight, with skin, and with other features, similar to many other youth. We need more books that celebrate and affirm Asian beauty, as well as more books that depict the range of image issues we continue to struggle with. Asian American authors and illustrators – people who experience these struggles themselves – are well poised to address these issues.

$T2eC16V,!y0E9s2S640GBR(OcH01iw~~_35I’m not looking forward to the time when my daughter will start worrying that she is not as beautiful as her white friends or the white children she sees in the media. My husband and I are working hard to proactively counteract negative messages by emphasizing Korean culture and aesthetics, buying Asian-looking dolls, and reading Korean and Asian American picture books at home, but we have limited options compared to white parents seeking mirrors for their children. And my daughter has an advantage because her mother is an Asian American children’s literature scholar, but what about the Asian American youth whose parents don’t know of Asian American children’s books, or why it’s so important for Asian Americans to see healthy and accurate images of themselves in the world around them? When I give gifts to my friends’ children, I usually gift Asian American children’s literature, but I have to plan ahead because I can’t walk into any Barnes & Noble and find, for example, New Clothes for New Year’s Day (Hyun-Joo Bae). So there’s an additional barrier to accessing Asian American stories and images.

Ruthie Dahlen_bpa__fix483And the thing is, so much of this is internalized that I still have to check myself. When my daughter was born, people commented that it was likely that she’d have double eyelids, like her father (who is also Korean), and I was so pleased. But she is beautiful whether her eyes are big or small, whether they are like mine or her father’s. When she grows up and reads this, she’s going to know that her mother wanted her to inherit her father’s eyes, and she’s going to learn that even her mother suffers from body image issues, but she will also learn that her mother is trying to be conscious and proactive and affirming.

We need more diverse books depicting Asian Americans of all body types and experiences so that our children – both Asian American and non-Asian American – can learn about authentic and beautiful Asian American aesthetics. Personally, I think there is much beauty in Korean culture and aesthetics. I was excited to wear my Korean hanbok (traditional dress) with my baby girl for her first birthday party (see photo), and I hope that when she grows up, she’ll see the Korean culture around her and find it as beautiful as I do. I hope that more people will be exposed to Korean culture so that they too will appreciate and respect – and not exploit – our bodies and our stories. I hope Asian American writers and artists will take the lead in this very important and transformational racial project.

Sarah Park Dahlen is an assistant professor in the Master of Library and Information Science Program at St. Catherine University.

IMG_1729_crop-low resJanine: These are all excellent questions. You could write books (many!) on this topic alone. As a woman of Chinese, African American, white, and Native descent whose day job has been working in the social justice movement for nearly 15 years, I can’t help but connect these questions to the visibility/invisibility of Asian/Pacific Islanders in the Movement. From the stereotypes and common portrayals of history, you might not think that Asian/Pacific Islander Americans played or play much of a role as activists. And yet the more attention we pay, the more we’ll find. Yuri Kochiyama stood beside Malcolm, Grace Lee Boggs fought for worker and tenants rights in New York and Detroit, and Philip vera Cruz was a co-founder of United Farm Workers Union and an integral organizer alongside Caesar Chavez.
These individuals are not isolated instances or anomalies. The San Francisco Bay Area has been home to sizeable API communities for over 100 years, and a region for API activism for just as long. I have friends whose parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement, and bore the brunt of the violence at San Francisco State University to carve out the first Ethnic Studies program in the nation. (UC Berkeley protests got all the visibility, but far more police violence was committed against working class students at SF State.)
And in my work in the social justice movement today, some of the fiercest champions, activists, and organizers I know are Asian/Pacific Americans. I don’t know what it is, perhaps a deferral of the spotlight. Perhaps dominant stereotypes and invisibility make APIs less appealing to the media. Perhaps mainstream thought refuses to recognize the oppression APIs have historically experienced. Maybe APIs would rather forget, and turn away from histories of oppression.
Sadly, many are still bought into the dream that assimilation can overcome racism, poverty and lack of opportunity. Unfortunately this is an individualistic view (mythology) that fails to raise all ships, boats, rafts. Artist-activist friends at Dignidad Rebelde remind us of Fred Hampton’s words: Fight Racism with Solidarity.
Individualism stemming from assimilation mentality isn’t solidarity. Assimilation mythology is a form of genocide.
I know that not all Asian/Pacific Islander writers choose to write about white s/heroes. Sadly it appears that these are the writers that are disproportionately published.
I hope that more API writers and creators have the opportunity to know their roots and deepen their community ties. (Especially when we’re minorities in a homogenous environment, this is no easy task, and demands perseverance and conscious re-education.) And I hope that those who already embrace themselves have more and more opportunities to share their stories and make us less invisible.
Our histories, our identities, our future generations are on the line.
Janine Macbeth is the founder of Blood Orange Press, a sprouting children’s publishing company dedicated to correcting the invisibility of people of color in children’s literature. @BloodOrangePres

mike-jung-author-writerMike: When I was a teenager I didn’t give any thought to having a future in writing – my dream was to become a comic book illustrator. That dream went by the wayside for a number of reasons, not the least of which was my family’s generation-spanning opposition to anyone in MY generation becoming an artist of any kind, but in high school I still spent a lot of time drawing, either characters of my own making, or classic Marvel and DC Comics characters. One of my favorites was a character that’ll soon have his own show on Netflix: Iron Fist, who is, of course, very much a white savior character. And as usual, I didn’t give that aspect of the character any thought at all until a year and a half ago, when I started engaging in public dialogue about diversity. I uncritically mentioned Iron Fist in blog interviews when my first book came out, in fact.

It was therefore revelatory to read Gene Luen Yang’s masterpiece American Born Chinese. It was like nothing I’d ever read before, and the illustrations brought the story’s psychological impact home in a way I didn’t expect. The final panels of the book…I recognized what was happening in those panels, through personal experience, because I am still white-identified. I can’t dispute that fact. The phrase that’s often used in that context is “yellow on the outside, white on the inside,” and that certainly is apt on physiological and psychological terms, but I tend to picture the opposite, in more metaphorical terms: yellow on the inside –  an increasingly pale, atrophied, alienated identity as an Asian-American – and white on the outside. Painted white, perhaps; whitewashed; coated in layers upon layers of whiteness.

abcPart of the brilliance of American Born Chinese is how it portrays that layering of whiteness, a process that I engaged in, and am only now trying to reverse. I’m not doing it well; I’m not doing it effectively; I’m still called a banana Asian now and again, and I’m unable to counter such comments. My involvement in diversity work, which still feels brand new to me, has agitated my biggest, loudest, harshest inner demons, and they are reopening old gashes in my psyche with a vengeance.

I often wonder what it would have been like to read American Born Chinese when I was in my teens, instead of in my thirties. Would I have been more conscious about the ways in which my identity was being warped, and the ways in which I allowed it to happen? Would it have helped me become less white-identified than I am today? Maybe my lifetime tally of self-hatred would be lower than it’s been over the years. Maybe not; I was not the most emotionally evolved teenager the world has ever seen. But maybe.

Then there’s my daughter. She and I are eerily alike in some ways. She’s going to face some of the same challenges I faced in my youth, and I struggle to keep from infecting her with my own fears of those challenges. She’s very different from me in other ways, however. She’s stronger in some ways, and more self-aware. She’s read both of my books, the published one and the soon-to-be-published one, and she strongly identifies with them both. Recently her summer camp had a so-called “Superhero Friday,” and my daughter chose to go as Polly Winnicott-Lee, one of the two most important characters in Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities, and she made that choice because in her words she both is like Polly and looks like Polly. I was powerfully struck by that, because Geeks is an illustrated novel.

GGSI_coverMaybe the illustrations weren’t a deciding factor, but I think they were. It’s possible, maybe even probable, that I’ve already visited my own issues with cultural alienation upon my daughter; perhaps my ongoing identity disentanglement is one of the more dismal ways in which she and I will turn out to be alike. I feel hopeful, though, and it means something that this particular feeling of hope is rooted in my daughter’s interaction with a book that I wrote and includes pictures of explicitly mixed-race characters. I can describe that feeling of hope in another way, too: I hope present and future readers of Asian descent will have experiences less like mine, and more like my daughter’s, at least in this one instance. We can hope. Right?

Mike Jung is the author of the middle-grade novels Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2012) and Unidentified Suburban Object (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2016). He’s also contributed essays to the anthologies Dear Teen Me (Zest, 2012), Break These Rules (Chicago Review Press, 2013), and 59 Reasons to Write (Stenhouse, 2015). Mike is a founding member of the We Need Diverse Books team, and serves as a grant officer for the WNDB Internship Program.

SonaSona: The first time I saw someone who looked like me in a book, I was 19 and in college. I had this vague idea in my head by then of wanting to be a writer, but it was sort of like a fantasy — brown girls don’t write books. Or they didn’t, until then. The book was Ameena Meer’s Bombay Talkie, about a knee-high generation Muslim teen. Her experience was like mine in many ways, but also so completely different. Still, I latched onto her wholeheartedly. And when the author came to Rutgers for a signing, I was the first in line. I shyly told her about my writerly ambitions, and she told me that if she could do it, so could I.

I’d had other people tell me that I should write before then. But until that moment, I didn’t take it seriously. I couldn’t. It took seeing her do it to give me the strength, the courage. But I got lucky with that book and that meeting. There are so many kids of Asian descent who still rarely see themselves in books — let alone writing books. “Writer” is sadly not in the top ten (or top 100) career choices for many kids from marginalized communities, Asian or otherwise. And even when we do see ourselves on the page, the representations — so frequently created by those not from within these communities — are often troublesome.
We’ve also heard by now Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s idea of “the danger of a single story.” I think that holds more true today than ever. We’re repeating tropes and long-held stereotypes, reaffirming those ideas for future generations. They’re so ingrained, we don’t even know that we can step outside of them. We need to take control of the images being created — and the only way to do that is to become part of the process. Become writers, artists, editors, publishers, booksellers.
41YJP8KFB3L._SX296_BO1,204,203,200_The struggle here is twofold, I think. One is to be brave enough to think of ourselves as heroes (or antiheroes), protagonists, characters with agency and power. The second is to put ourselves in places we’re not expected. Not every Asian story has to be about the immigrant experience or struggling with two cultures. We can be the rebel leaders in that deep space opera. The drivers in that summer road trip romp. Front and center in that fierce basketball drama. And the romantic lead in that impossible love story. We need to be more than just the warriors or mathletes or spelling bee competition. We need to be able to reimagine ourselves on the page in new scenarios and take control of the images we’re creating. Only then can we shift the narrative and reshape it.

Sona Charaipotra is co-founder of CAKE Literary and co-author of Tiny Pretty Things (HarperTeen, 2015). She is also a full-time freelance writer focusing on entertainment, lifestyle and parenting.