“Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like me” as viewed by an East Asian parent

For the second year in a row, I posted Children’s Literature Ambassador Gene Yang’s Reading Challenges (Reading Without Walls) as a preamble to the Summer Recommended Reading Lists for my students.  The three main points are:

  • Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like me or live like me.
  • Read a book about a topic I don’t know much about.
  • Read a book in a format (or genre) that I don’t normally read for fun.

Last Wednesday, a parent brought her 4th grade daughter to the library to check out summer books and her first question to me was, “Who decided on the summer reading challenges?”  Seeing her and her daughter, both of East Asian descent, it suddenly dawned on me that the first challenge was not a “challenge” at all, but a re-enforcement of what has been the norm in the child’s reading experiences: almost always reading about someone who doesn’t look like her.  The mother confirmed my realization by saying that there are pretty much no books with characters that look like her! So I grasped at the straw of the second part of the same challenge: live like me and said that this could mean someone living in a rural area, from a different era, or different country.

The next ten minutes saw me scouring the library collection, trying to offer SOME titles with characters that might mirror her daughter’s appearances or experiences, written by authors of a similar background — to very little success.  She already read all the books by Grace Lin multiple times.  Linda Sue Park’s books do not seem to speak to her (even though I thought Project Mulberry might work just fine…) Cynthia Kadohata’s books tend to cover more somber topics that the child does not want to read over the summer (and The Thing About Luck was already checked out!) Marie Lu’s books do not feature East Asian main characters and Kiki Strike’s girl pal Oona Wong has a father who is a major criminal.  The books by Ying Chang Compestine are either too serious or too scary or do not feature a girl main character. I was hoping she would probably take out Millicent Min, Girl Genius but she took one look and didn’t like the idea of reading about a girl who’s super smart.  Eventually, they took out some other books and left not unhappy but definitely not entirely satisfied.

And I was left pondering: Why did I not see how the first part of the challenge might read/feel to child readers who have not seen themselves reflected in books all along? Why?  Because I defaulted readily into the “white audience” mode and only realized the imbalance when confronted with this real-life scenario that offers me a broader view.   I also realized how lacking of knowledge I am to fun books (fantasy, mystery, school humor, graphic novels, etc.) that feature East Asian characters prominently for tweens! Suggestions welcome!

Lesson learned and hopefully will be able to apply in the future.

 

15 Comments

Filed under Field Reports, WIWWAK

15 responses to ““Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like me” as viewed by an East Asian parent

  1. i am very familiar with this problem being the mother of part-Filipino kids! My 12 yo son has really been enjoying the Nameless City graphic novel series by Faith Erin Hicks. Both my kids like the Avatar graphic novels. On the older end of the spectrum and reaching slightly, the second Mars Evacuees book has a Filipino- Australian POV character. (My son only wants to read spec fic.) On the younger end, there’s the Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng. Erin Entrada Kelly is a Filipino- American who writes mg fiction that’s honestly a little too sad for me, but which lots of my friends, including target age, like lots.

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    • fairrosa

      Katy — interesting how you don’t have an adverse reaction to Nameless City. I will give it another try, then. Thank you for the suggestions.

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      • Sorry – it’s taken some time for me to have time to go back and read the criticisms of the Nameless City, which I hadn’t seen before. Some of them I agree with – the lack of speaking female characters, and the problematic nature of having the representative of the Named (a diverse group of people, as we see especially in the second book), be represented by someone who looks white. Also the signs being written in things that look like characters that weren’t (though I’ve seen comics do the same thing with writing whatever language.) But I didn’t feel that the Named were meant to be all white at all, and I guess while I agree with the need for research, most fantasy literature is set in worlds that are somewhere between reality and not. I love fantasy as a genre, and I’m happy to see things branching out of medievalish Europe. I also thought that Hicks is dealing with the problematic nature of conquest, and gets into it more over the second book. But, that is me reading and it isn’t to say that you wouldn’t have a different take on it.

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        • fairrosa

          I can’t really comment on Nameless City because I couldn’t bring myself to finish the first volume. I think I will have to go back to it before truly forming my opinions. However, it is telling in a way that something can be so irksome to me while it does not bother anyone else at all. And there is this: in the U.S. and most western countries’ literature, white and dominant cultures can be easily “branched out” because the white readers do not fear that their actual history and culture can be misinterpreted since it’s so main stream and readers can easily tell which elements are from the fanciful mind of an author and which are not. When it comes to base something on a culture much less familiar to readers and critics, elements can become a lot more confusing. The example of “gibberish writing” that you cite in your comment loosely based on what Chinese words might look like to total foreign eyes can be quite offensive to someone who knows Chinese, is from that culture, and is tired of people’s continuing misunderstanding or lack of understanding of such basic elements (and not that difficult to research/represent any more in our internet-rich age). Does that make sense?

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          • I absolutely see the point with being tired of things being continually misinterpreted, and I get that it’s tricky when blending fantasy and reality. Like, maybe Hicks thought that putting nonsense characters on the signs would make it clearer that it’s meant to be fantasy and not historical China, and instead other people (ones I found linked from the RWW review) found it hurtful. I mentioned that specifically because (as I said), I am so used to reading graphics that don’t have real writing on signs that I didn’t notice it as all. So maybe that’s an example of me not being sensitive enough, though my son was reading it as an Asian-American kid. But we had a similar thing happen with Ghosts, which we read from the perspective of having a chronically ill child with a different challenge. Even though our child also isn’t expected to die anytime soon, we found the depiction of dealing with chronic health issues resonated pretty deeply with us. But I read people in the CF community being quite offended by the depiction there. I don’t know that there’s a point there other than that all of this is so very hard to figure out, even going in with the best of intentions. I could stop recommending Nameless City based on the issues other people had with it, and hope for more Asian-American adventure stories in particular to come out soon.

            Liked by 1 person

        • fairrosa

          I think that to be able to recognize and accept of what Katy wrote, “I don’t know that there’s a point there other than that all of this is so very hard to figure out, even going in with the best of intentions” is crucial — that just because some of us feel a particular way (whether from the inside or outside of a particular culture,) it does not mean that it is “the” way that something has to be judged on. Having open dialogues and considering each other’s perspectives is more important, it seems to me, than having one authoritative voice that doles out absolute judgments.

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  2. Pingback: Whose Walls? A Different Perspective on Gene Yang’s Reading Without Walls Challenge | educating alice

  3. Barb Jaindl

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts. Recently had a conversation with a parent volunteer in our school library about how thrilled she was that her daughters have access to a library, but I realized we really didn’t have any titles that reflected the culture from which their mom was raised. It’s so difficult with stretching limited budgets to meet all the diverse perspectives. How do we fill that galas we grow our collections?

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    • fairrosa

      By prioritizing our collection development strategies? When considering book orders, take a harder look at the diverse representations and perhaps let go a few middle-of-the-road books that do not offer broader world views? Don’t forget — books featuring different kinds of characters are good for ALL readers.

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  4. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu is a great everyday life story. I also adore The Way Home Looks Now, but that’s considerably sadder. And I’m looking forward to reading Wendy Wan-Long Shang’s newest, This Is Just a Test.

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  5. fairrosa

    Much appreciated! I also probably could have given her the Unidentified Suburban Objects!

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  6. Thank you Roxanne for writing this piece!

    I enjoyed the first in the The Wells & Wong Mystery series by Robin Stevens, Murder is Bad Banners. It is fun and fits in the “cozy-murder-mystery” genre. It is set in an England in the early 1930 it features super sleuth Hazel Wong. I haven’t had a chance to read more in the series, but her and her somewhat frenemy and partner in crime solving reminding me of the Sherlock dynamic, and it was often very funny.

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  7. Rosanne Parry

    Thoughtful as always, Roxanne!

    The first book to spring to mind for me is FINDING MIGHTY by Sheela Chari, a mystery set in New York but with Indian American characters. Graham Salisbury has many Asian-American characters in his various books set in Hawaii, though because most of them involve WWII they are probably not what this particular girl is after.
    I’m often not sure when someone is looking for an Asian American book how specific to their own ethnicity they want it to be. China, Japan and India seem VERY different to me but get lumped together in the same category. I suppose like most things this varies a lot from person to person.

    If you are open to YA books I’d love to put Fonda Lee on your radar. She writes really strong SciFi. Her first book was ZEROBOXER and the newest is EXO. Fonda is a fellow Portlander and she did the most awesome writers workshop on writing fight scenes. My League of Exceptional Writers LOVED it! I highly recommend her as a workshop speaker.

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    • fairrosa

      That is so great! Re Fonda. And yes, at least from a Chinese person’s (my) view, east and south Asians are two very different worlds and peoples. I feel more akin to South East Asians like Filipinos and Vietnamese (countries with large Chinese population and influences) for sure: although we definitely have different national histories and different patterns of Western encounters.

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