Category Archives: WIWWAK

What About White Boys? (All Children’s Lives Matter)

milesI haven’t posted for a long time — but I have been thinking about both our society and the children’s books that reflect (and hopefully help shape) our society and its future.

E-V-E-R-Y  S-I-N-G-L-E  D-A-Y!

Here’s what I posted on Facebook this morning:

As we teach girls to say NO, we must also teach boys to RESPECT. As we teach girls to be STRONG, we must also teach boys to be KIND. As we teach black children to EXCEL, we must also teach white children to REFLECT. As we teach black children to have more self CONFIDENCE, we must also teach white children to have more INFORMED EMPATHY.

Instead of judging and blaming each other, we must teach POSITIVE INTERACTIONS AND ACTIONS between groups of people.

Heck, this is not just about children. This is about all of us.

And promptly a white male relative (in his 50s) who is informed, kind, and loving, posted that he agrees with my basic principles, but it seems so “one-sided” and that it sounds like I am blaming and judging white males.

Here’s what my response to him:

Actually, I think of it as helping white males to adjust better in a world where their past and complacent modes might no longer serve them well and let them be equal partners of a future, equal world.

If you truly examine our history and society and systems, you would see that pretty much all other groups: women, non straight, and non white people have been on the receiving end of systemic oppression: less paid for equal work, fewer rights for the same human beings, etc. I actually want Educators who have been advocating one sided to educate girls and people of color but having largely ignored giving the tools and skills to handle an increasingly demanding (and rightfully so) world.

So yes, it is one sided: for the benefit of our children and ourselves. Instead of just blaming people like Trump or Sessions or Weinstein, I want to figure out how we can successfully educate the white/male of the future to thrive and to not thrive by stepping on others’ heads. Does this make sense to you?

Indeed, I have been wondering and hoping for more books by White and Non-White authors that feature good, kind, fair, courageous, moral, wonderful WHITE male and female characters — who do not just show up as white saviors or antagonists but act like so many of my real life white friends do — stand up for what’s wrong, fight for justice, and are self-reflecting and always want to be better humans.

I often hear that children need mirrors to reflect themselves and their experiences — I say that they also need a crystal ball that can show them what they COULD become.  I am worried when I started noticing that authors of children’s books seem to think that when they create wonderful children of color protagonists, they are then obligated to create white antagonists (bullies, uncaring teachers, etc.)  I wonder about the image that a white young reader sees in such books — are these the only roles they can assume now?  Are they being delegated to the dark side without redemption?  How hopeless is that? And how dangerous!

I wish to caution writers and editors: in our zealous (much needed) pursuit to include positive characters from marginalized groups, please do not make the dangerous mistake in creating a host of negative characters from the majority group, or excluding them from positively interacting with characters from the marginalized groups.

Case in point: Miles Morales features a black/hispanic hero with an Asian side-kick and a racist white teacher — is there no possibility for Miles to have close and allying white peers, friends, and mentors?  Another case in point: Hello, Universe features wonderful, quirky, and ultimately lovable Filipino, Hispanic, and Asian main characters.  And there is ONE white family/white child — and that ONE white family/child are bullies whose actions are most aptly described as despicable.  Of course, these are but two books from thousands of children’s books published in 2017 — but they are highly touted, much recommended books, featured in Best Of the Year lists, for middle grade students.  What is the telegraphed message here — and if there are more books like this frequently consumed by young readers — how would they view each other and each other’s group?

This is why I say, “Thank Goodness for Magnus Chase,” a white boy, created by a white male author, who encounters an assorted group of friends and foes — from different cultures, with different sexual orientations/gender identities, and religious beliefs. And they are judged not by the color of their skin or identity traits — but by their inner convictions.  Because, let’s not forget that when Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” he never meant that he wished his children to grow up “judgment free.”  As citizens of the world and members of our own community, we must understand that the content of our character is to be examined, held accountable, and, yes, “judged” by our peers and our society.  Being part of a particular culture, whether marginalized or main-stream, does not exempt anyone from having a moral conscience.

While I am completely opposing the sentiment behind the “All Lives Matter” slogan (which is a detraction and distraction from the urgent “Black Lives Matter” movement,) I must advocate that ALL CHILDREN’S LIVES MATTER.

Please look at the big picture.

Please look toward a long-term future.

Please mind the GOAL — which is to respect and treasure everyone equally, regardless of skin colors, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, genders, etc. etc. etc. In order to actually achieve this goal, we cannot trample on ANY child and their potential, positive future.  We must make it possible that the children of today will become fair and compassionate adults – so we must hold up that crystal ball and motivate them with positive imageries of their potential selves.*

* Of course, I am not advocating of having no villains in books or no conflicts in stories!  Just please be mindful of the trend…

 

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Dear White People: It Is Up to You to Undo Racism (with help and guidance from People of Color)

In early July, I attended a week-long educators workshop offered by the National Museum of African American History & Culture.  (With daily access to the museum’s collections before it opened to the public!)

There were more than 30 attendees and five master teachers, with 2-3 guest speakers a day.  We unpacked many topics, from the dehumanization of the African American slaves to self-reflection of what is Whiteness in the 21st century America and how as educators we must examine and incorporate true history and social justices into our curriculum.

After a particularly impactful day, with one of my New York City Independent School colleagues, Erica Corbin Rodriguez leading the workshop, I went back to the hotel and texted with a friend who was a former student and also a fellow-teacher at Dalton.  He is a 24 year old white male and I have his permission to post our conversation here: I’m the white text with blue background and he’s black text with gray background.

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As the 2017-18 school year starts tomorrow for all our students, I am constantly reminding myself that it is my responsibility to keep social justices front and center in my curriculum and my interaction with students. This one former student is not a unique or singular case: he is one of many responsible, compassionate, and self-reflective white men and women that we hope to “unleash into the society” and make the world a more just and loving place.  And just as he said, he is responsible to undo racism, more so than any person of color.  He and many others will need constant dialogue and guidance — let’s work side by side to achieve our common goal: equality for all.

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Musing While (Off)White

Readers of this blog and friends & colleagues might have known that I am originally from Taiwan, growing up as a racial majority, upper socio-(but-not-economical) class, and never having to figure out my racial identity as a marginalized child, teen, or young adult.

When you grow up occupying only a small slice of the population pie (less than 1/16 for Asian Americans of varied country origins,) your self-image and self-worth must rely not only on your family’s heritage and conviction, but also on your school environment, your neighborhood, and media representation.

For the last few years, I have identified myself as a Person of Color so I could unite with my Asian American, Brown American, and Black American brothers and sisters to raise awareness of the institutionalized racism they (we) must confront and rectify together. However, I must confess the hesitation, the discomfort, and the sense of being an “imposter” in many of such groups that I insert myself in at work, at professional settings, and social gatherings.  I attend the monthly Faculty of Color meetings to discuss and strategize how to make my school a more inclusive and just environment for everyone.  I go to the annual People of Color Conference for educators to glean and share new knowledge and lesson plans.  I read books and articles and discuss about all sorts of sub-topics related to the systemic oppression so many of my colleagues, friends, and students have to contend with on a daily basis.

Every so often, I say to myself, “But you have never personally experienced any of these, except for perhaps once in a while someone jokingly (or seriously) thinks that you can do math a little better or that you are probably quite docile.”  The last point could be exasperating since I am so far from being docile or gentle but the misconception or stereotype never gives me an iota of emotional stress.  My racial identity could be easily just part of my whole being: like that I’m short or I am near-sighted and that I am a mother and a librarian.  I am more and more aware of how much a luxury it is that I can go about my day, moving in all sorts of spaces to not be keenly aware of my racial identity.

This is the kind of luxury (privilege?) that I imagine many of my white friends, colleagues, and students have.  And I also imagine that this is why so many of them are still struggling to figure out why their brown/black/Asian counterparts cannot simply “let this racial identity thing” go, or cannot simply train themselves to not allow racial identity to dominate one’s self-image or as the main influence of one’s notion of self-worth.

The more I think about my own identity, the more I know that I cannot claim to be a Person of Color in 2017 America. Instead, I feel like I need a different category — a different label, perhaps. My socio-economic status, my immigration status (naturalized citizen by marriage,) my work stability, and my lack of external threats from law enforcement, etc., makes me, if not 100% equal to most upper-middle class white Americans, close enough to Being White.  This explains why I often do not have the “ouch” reaction that many people of color have when encountering media misrepresentations, lack of representations, or grossly inaccurate stereotypical expectations — all because I have not experienced years of being misunderstood or being reduced to a “type” and not being seen and valued as a unique individual.  If there is some sort of continuum of Racial Identities — then I would drop my pin (when it comes to how privileged and how socially resourced I am) somewhere in the “White” section. Since I cannot claim to be actually White, I will from now on think of myself as Off-White and hopefully can use this identity to help my White colleagues, friends, and students to figure out how we can help advance the anti-racist and social justice causes.

I welcome comments and thoughts — am I being completely off here?  Am I usurping anyone’s identity to claim myself as Off White or is it somehow accurate and perhaps even rings a bell for other Asian Americans?

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“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.

 

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Chinese Government to Restrict Foreign Picture Books – News from China

According to these two articles, one by the Guardian, Peppa Pig pulled: China cracks down on foreign children’s books and one on South China Morning Post, What does China have against Peppa Pig?, the Chinese Government has started to limit the number of picture books originally published overseas in order to both foster local children’s book publication and have a firmer control over the kind of ideology conveyed through the local picture books. (Thanks, Jeff Gottesfeld, for posting these links on Facebook!)

I am monitoring this progress and will report back for those interested in following this topic.  But, right out of the bag, I’d like to point out that the number of translated books for children in China has always been huge and overpowering.  Look at this screenshot of the top paperback picture book bestsellers on their largest online children’s bookstore: 2 from the Netherland, 4 from the United States, and 2 from France.  Not a single title is by Chinese authors or illustrators.

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Compare this to the top selling picture books on Amazon in the U.S. (There is no such category, only best selling children’s books.)  There are eight picture books in the first twenty titles which are mostly Harry Potter books: First 100 Words by Roger Priddy, The Going-To-Bed Book by Sandra Boynton, The Wonderful Things… by Emily Winfield Martin, Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry’s The Gingerbread Man (Little Golden Book) by Nancy Nolte (Author), Richard Scarry (Illustrator), and Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown.  All of them are published in the U.S., by U.S. authors and illustrators.  In fact, it has always been rare for foreign, translated work for children to thrive in the U.S. marketplace.

So, I imagine that the need for #OWNVOICE is real and urgent in China.

There is a reason I used this hashtag since I saw that someone invented this other hashtag on Facebook to stress that China Need Diverse Books: #CNDB (modeling after the #WNDB, We Need Diverse Books hashtag) as if the Chinese market is flushed with nothing BUT Chinese creators’ works.  The reality is quite the opposite.

Let’s truly examine the full ranges of the issues of picture book fields in these two countries before making judgements regarding the nature and influence of this potential “government mandate.”

The fact is: the U.S. has no government mandate, but a free market, that dictates what gets published and sold.  And what we have is usually an extremely U.S. or Western centric slate of titles year in and year out.  Any publisher is BRAVE enough to bring a couple of culturally unfamiliar, translated books into the U.S. market is praised, patted on the back, but rarely sees monetary success because of such courageous move.  (And why isn’t the Betchelder Award ever cites the Translator along with the Publisher.  Or for that matter, why aren’t translators’ names always prominently placed on the cover or title pages? That’s another whole blog post to come.)

As some of you know already, I am working with Candied Plums, a new children’s book imprint, to bring contemporary Chinese books to the U.S. There is no mandate from anyone or anywhere, except for the publisher’s and my desire to bring more cultural understanding and accessibility to the U.S. readers.  These picture books, in my opinion, do not promote the “Chinese/Communist Dogma,” nor do they convey any specific ideology except for displaying all ways that we can be human.  These books should be as popular in China as all the imported books.  So, perhaps, just perhaps, the publishers who have been working hard at publishing their #OWNVOICES would have a better chance at reaching their #OWNREADERS with this new, drastic mandate from the Government?

 

 

 

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Nameless City by Hicks – RWW Review

I’d like to draw attention to this thoughtful review of Erin Hicks’ graphic novel Nameless City over at Reading While White blog, I could not bring myself to reading most of the book, because of my own strong emotional (mostly adverse) reaction the raised concerns explored by Angie Manfredi in her review.  I did not speak up about this title because I strongly believe that one cannot critique a book without reading the book in its entirety and closely examining its many components.  (I felt the same about Ryan Gaudin’s The Walled City and Richelle Mead’s Soundless, both “inspired” and “loosely based” on an exoticized old China without the authors’ true understanding of the very real, and very much “living” culture or paying tribute to the long established literary tradition in this particular country.)

 

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16th Day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

This post, meant to be published on May 16th, never got posted on the 16th Day of APA Heritage Month.  I have since read (listened to) the book and edited slightly my responses to Shliesman’s review.  Since this is a book eligible for Odyssey Award and I am currently serving on the committee, I am not going to discuss the quality of the writing, nor the technical merits/flaws, etc. of the recording.

This post is about a bigger issue, with the review as a springboard.

tyranny of petticoatsMegan Schliesman, in her Reviewing While White: A Tyranny of Petticoats, points out that there are fifteen stories in this short story collection and eight of the stories feature characters of color and one of them is about a Chinese American.

The more than a dozen contributors include four women of color: three of them are of Asian Pacific heritage. Marie Lu wrote a story about an Inuit girl in Alaska. Caroline Tung Richmond and Y.S. Lee both wrote stories about white protagonists and the one story about a Chinese American girl is written by a white author.

This is not surprising since Asian American children’s and YA authors have not been known to write only about Asian American experiences. Marie Lu’s Legend and the Young Elites trilogies all feature predominantly non-Asian characters. And both Y.S. Lee and Caroline Tung Richmond write about European girls.

Schliesman also pointed out that the one story featuring a Chinese American character portrays a girl who can see ghosts and commune with spirits.  (And several other stories featuring POC characters also include ghosts or spirits.)  She wrote,

Surely there are plenty of “badass girls” who can be imagined throughout and across U.S. history and authentically grounded in a variety of cultures without resorting to the fantastic. What am I to make of these stories? Are they grounded in any authentic cultural beliefs, or simply spun from their authors’ imaginations?

I’d like to think that this is a true question and that perhaps either the authors or cultural experts might be able to offer a satisfactory answer.  However, this could also be an accusation: perhaps Schliesman already decided that the authors have not grounded their stories in authentic cultural beliefs and by “resorting to the fantastic,” they have either exoticized the cultures or rendered them “backwards.”

The only thing I can offer here is based on my own singular experience as a Chinese girl growing up in Taiwan.  And from there, perhaps readers of A Tyranny of Petticoats can make up their own minds about whether this Chinese American story’s allusion to ghosts/spirits seems authentic.

Re-reading part of Maxine Hong Kingston’s wonderful memoir The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, I was reminded how my own girlhood in Taiwan was tightly woven with the beliefs in the spiritual world: my mother had lucid dreams and could tell us about immediate future events with quite a bit of accuracy; my father’s soul was raised to Heaven by 49 days of continuous Buddhist monks’ chanting in our house; fortune-tellers are consulted by most people to find the best day to open a business, to have a wedding, and the best match for one’s daughter or son; the many offerings at various temples from parents to secure their children’s high marks on the college entrance exam… these are things we routinely did (and most likely still do.)  As recently as just a couple of years ago, after a really frightening nightmare when we stayed in a hotel in central Taiwan, I asked my older sister, who sometimes serves as an exorcist to “clean houses (eject ghosts)” for her friends and clients, to perform a ritual involving clean water and a bowl of beans.  I slept soundly after that ritual. I definitely have a strong sense of pre-destined fate and still clench my fists in a particular pattern to ward off evil elements when passing a cemetery or encountering a funeral procession.  (Actually, an upcoming book written by a debut Taiwanese American author will explore Taiwan “ghost culture” deeply, and authentically.)

Will I take offense if someone out of my culture takes these elements and insert them clumsily and stridently into a tale without truly understanding where all these beliefs and sensibilities came from? Probably.  I imagine that it is not easy for an “outsider” to grasp or present accurately my strong fear of ghosts or my sense of comfort when smelling incense – both have roots in my own self and also my connection to the tradition passed down through many thousands of years.  This probably explains my inability to finish a well received book such as The Walled City by Ryan Graudin — I simply couldn’t get past her descriptions of the Chinese Constellations and how they are used in her tale and found her supposedly in-depth research, from afar without actually living through or experiencing the culture, lacking. This is also perhaps why I have yet to be able to read past the first segment of The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks — when the location in this Graphic Novel is so glaringly a superficial copy of a Chinese traditional city.

That said, is including ghosts/spirits in a story about a Chinese American girl automatically the mark of “exoticism” or “keeping the culture in the backwater days”?  I’d say no — not automatically at all.  It all depends on how the tale is told and the world is built and whether there is a true understanding of from where such elements came.  Just because I, a 50 something Chinese/Taiwanese woman feels a certain way about a text featuring “my culture” does not mean that mine is THE way or THE ONLY way that such text would be or should be viewed by other Chinese/Taiwanese or Chinese/Taiwanese American readers.

I hope that we can all accept that, since People are complex and Cultures and Histories are complex, Books about People and Cultures the Discussions about such Books are also unavoidably complex. We do have to keep digging and thinking and sometimes even changing our minds.

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