THE MISSING PICTURE: Where are Asians in children’s books today?

The International Examiner December 18, 2014 1

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By Valerie Ooka Pang
and Jennifer M. Pang
IE Columnists

Asian American young readers often ask us: “Why don’t I see anyone like me in books?”

They are right. Sure there are a few books that talk about Chinese New Year or eating sushi, but why don’t we see AAPI children in their natural everyday lives?

We believe more books like the Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look are needed. One of the most funny in the series is Alvin Ho: Allergic to Dead Bodies, Funerals, and Other Fatal Circumstances. This is a hilarious book with funny illustrations by LeUyen Pham. Alvin is a second grader who, though stricken by shyness, has a rich interior life. The author gives him a distinctive voice that is appealing to readers of all ages.

For example, Alvin was supposed to give a letter to his parents from his teacher, but he didn’t.

“After a few days, when it was too late to give it to the Parents of Alvin Ho without some sort of trouble, and I couldn’t stand it any longer, I ripped open the letter and read it. Then I was very sorry I did. There was nothing in the letter that said anything good about me. If the Parents of Alvin Ho read it, there would be weeping (mine) and gnashing of teeth (my dad’s) … So I pushed it, along with my test, into the garbage disposal between the fish skeleton and coffee grounds …”

Another scary story is about going to a funeral. Like most other second graders, as well as a good portion of adults, Alvin is afraid of death. However, he promises his GungGung (grandfather) that he would go with him to Charlie’s funeral. Charlie was GungGung’s best friend and Alvin knew him too.

This is what Alvin said about going to the funeral:

“I stared straight ahead.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it.

The dead body.

It looked like Charlie. Sort of.

A strange, sad feeling went up my nose and fell into my chest.”

Why do we like Look’s Alvin Ho series? Alvin is just like any other kid who gets bullied, doesn’t want to do his homework, and his big brother often bothers him. However, Look integrates aspects of Alvin’s Chinese American culture like his relationships with his GungGung (grandfather) and PohPoh (grandmother), as well as traditional Chinese cultural customs such as in funerals. By naturally weaving culture into the story without making it a focal point, Look reflects what many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders do in their own lives.

We believe there are five major reasons why there are few Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and multicultural children’s books published in the past 20 years.

First, lots of publishers and Americans in general think that racism has been eliminated, marked by the election of a Black President for two terms. In addition to believing that Asians are all prosperous, many may think that there isn’t a need for “cultural” books. We are all the same, right? Because of these kinds of thoughts, few children’s books present the lives of multicultural children and their families. We believe that books like the Alvin Ho series not only show AAPI students that they can be the focus of their own stories, but also demonstrate to others the nuances of what it’s like to grow up in a diverse society.

Second, there are few AAPI and other publishers of multicultural children’s books. For example Lee and Low Books is one of the few book companies whose goal is to find and publish great stories about children and people of color. This is their vision. They were willing to take a financial risk to produce books like Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki, which is about the Japanese American internment experience, and Dia’s Story Cloth by Dia Cha, a wonderful picture book about the Hmong community’s flight to the United States during the war in Vietnam and Laos. Both of these titles continue to be found in bookstores and schools.

Third, the occupation of multicultural children’s book author and/or illustrator is not inherently valued. This is not an upwardly mobile career path; it is difficult to get published and to support oneself. This continues to be a problem for authors of various diverse backgrounds. There are few prolific authors such as Laurence Yep (Chinese American, Dragonwings), Faith Ringold (African American, Tar Beach), Gary Soto (Latino, Baseball in April), or Allen Say (Japanese-Korean American, The Favorite Daughter). We need many more like them.

Fourth, children’s literature with a multicultural focus often gets pigeon holed. Many teachers and parents think that books with protagonists who are people or children of color must only be for students of color. The United States is a culturally diverse nation. The books are needed for all readers. The labeling and categorizing books in this way can limit the vision of who we are as a nation. Consider a beautiful book like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, a haunting, wordless story for older readers about immigration to a foreign land. Though focusing on a potentially difficult topic, The Arrival can be used to illustrate how immigration has impacted our nation, families, and personal lives.

Finally, we must advocate for authors of color and books which center around characters who are culturally diverse. Just like those ads that we are bombarded with during the election season, we must lobby and purchase the books we want. We need to work together to support publishers like Lee and Low Books and AAPI authors and illustrators such as Lenore Look, Dia Cha, Laurence Yep, Ken Mochizuki, LeUyen Pham and Yangsook Choi. They tell AAPI stories and these stories enrich the lives of all children.

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One Comment »

  1. Multi Cultural Children's Writ December 19, 2014 at 2:10 pm -

    #MCLWI was founded to contribute to this ever-needed change.

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