What if your favorite children's book character was Asian?
I’m not easily offended and can’t say that I’m overly sensitive about race. I’m more of a realist and a jaded New Yorker. I expect to see at least one upsetting thing every time I step out of my apartment; I try to shrug them off and am usually successful. I’ve been hardened over the years.
But I don’t wear this as a badge - it’s more of a coping mechanism. You’d think that the more diverse a city is, the less racist it is - but you’d be wrong. Diversity seems to help educate a population to the different cultural practices that exist, but being educated about something doesn’t automatically lead to acceptance and love. I’ve met more than a fair share of racists growing up in NYC, and they come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds; I’m used to it.
But I do get sensitive about race when it comes to my children and the things they’re exposed to. In particular I’m finding myself pretty peeved at certain things I’ve been seeing in children’s books these days. I’m not a big fan of the over-saturation of culturally-themed children’s books. I understand that it’s important to have a book about Chinatown or Chinese New Year, but is that the only context in which an Asian child can appear in a children’s book in America?
Why are there not as many books starring Asian children that aren’t about Asian culture?
Isn’t it possible for an Asian American to be more American than Asian when it comes to their values and practices?
Whenever there is an in-balance, there tends to be unintended consequences. In the case of an over-supply of culturally-themed books, to an unsuspecting young reader - it presents a one-dimensional picture of an Asian person: someone who goes to parades with dragons, fireworks and hangs lanterns outside their house once a year. An Asian person is not generally the hero, prince/ss, or love-interest but merely a byproduct of his/her culture, which is also heavily stereotyped and fetishized.
In the adult context, It’s 2017 and we’re still having this Matt Damon controversy. When do Asians make the leap from being representations of their culture to being individuals? ...read more
Hollywood dictates a lot of the media we have access to; movies take a lot of money and time to make, which is why it’s so surprising to me at what actually makes it to the screen. Unfortunately, it seems like Asians aren’t getting the media love at this moment in time. It’s still just kung fu and Geisha movies for us. Attempts have been made to transcend but were unsuccessful - RIP “Selfie.”
So what now?
We go to the root. Every adult, including Hollywood producers, were children once. At some point, those same children developed a worldview that didn’t include Asians as people of interest when it came to heroism, love or humor.
Perhaps those children didn’t get an opportunity to read a book about a funny or heroic Asian child. Imagine how the narrative would be if Max from Where the Wild Things Are is Asian. Maybe the boy from the Giving Tree is Vietnamese, or if Madeline was about a rambunctious little girl from Shanghai.
Who knows what would have happened in the above hypotheticals. We can dream about what ifs, or we can experiment with what ifs and turn them into reality and see what happens. I've spent enough years in silent frustration, waxing philosophically about how things could have been.
I have two daughters now and they don't want to listen to me complain. Their futures demand action from me, and I'm up for the challenge.
For those who haven’t read any of my previous posts, I’m currently writing an illustrated children’s book inspired by my oldest daughter, Madison. While the book is meant to be a celebration of all the best parts of Madison, I’m also hoping to play a role in supplying the current children’s book market with at least one book that features an awesome child as the main character - who also happens to be diverse.
The character’s name is Pepper Zhang and she happens to be incredibly artistic and amazing. No, she doesn’t live in Chinatown and no, it’s not about Chinese new year.