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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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Salla Simukka, Finnish Author

At a small event hosted by the Consul General from Finland, introducing best-selling author Salla Simukka from Finland, I learned a little about Nordic Noir and Finnish Weird.

Simukka’s takes the lines from Snow White as the three titles of the trilogy: As Red as Blood, As White as Snow, and As Black as Ebony, but this is not a fairytale retelling or fantasy.  Rather they are gritty, dark, and intense crime novels for teens.

I also learned that in Finnish, the third person pronoun has no gender differentiation, so a reader of the Finnish original would have little clue as to the gender of the love interest of the main character.  (And in book 2, the full identity is revealed and it is probably going to be a surprise for most readers!)

These books’ English editions have been available in the States since 2013 but now are getting a re-release (probably some editorial revision as well) starting January 2017 by Random House/Crown Books for Young Readers.

Salla had a conversation with her U.S. editor Phoebe Yeh (WNDB) discussing her writing style and views. She’s eloquent and full of energy.

Hopefully we will see more and more translated contemporary work from other countries to enrich young people’s understanding of the world and empower them to be true global citizens.

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A Tribe of Kind Souls: a closer look at a double spread in Lane Smith’s There Is a TRIBE of KIDS

There Is a TRIBE of KIDS (capitalization as part of the title/design), written and illustrated by Lane Smith (Stinky Cheeseman, The Happy Hocky FamilyIt’s a Book, etc.), was published in May, 2016 (two months ago.)

This book has received four starred reviews from major review sources and positive reviews from others. However, the use of the word TRIBE and some of the images on a particular double-page spread toward the end of the book have sparked heated debate (in which I took part) in several online places.  A short description and link to each of these reviews (with comments) can be found at the end of this post.

I read and re-read this book many times and have considered all the reviews cited below and many additional comments sprinkled throughout the internet.  Finally, I feel that I am ready to share my own take on this book.  I must stress that this is but ONE of many potential interpretations of the book which features very few words and delivers most of its “messages” with pictures that can be differently interpreted.

By no means do I want to discount Debbie’s and others’ pain when they face certain images (that they see on the second to last double spread) which definitely trigger strong emotional reactions from past and personal experiences.  (My own triggers are seeing erroneously attributed so-called Chinese cultures or imageries and boy do those get me seeing red!)

So here it is,

Fairrosa’s Interpretation of the Double Spread in There Is a TRIBE of KIDS:

I must confess that my initial reaction to the word TRIBE in the title was a skeptical one: how would it be used in the book?  to indicate some relations to Native American cultures?  to indicate something primitive?  When I finally read through the book (many times over,) I realized that, as Debbie Reese and many reviewers pointed out, it is a play on word.  Tribe is a collective noun for a group of “young goats” (kids) and Tribe is also a collective noun for many human groups that share the same cultural, geographical, or historical experiences.  The word is still used widely.  It is used by American Indians as their official group names.  It is used by the Jewish people.  It is also used by groups who need to bond over their unique identities and experiences, such as the deaf community (as found in Tribes, a play by Nina Raine from 2015.)

In the case of this book, Lane Smith used it to indicate a very specific “kind” of human beings: children. The child protagonist, after mimicking all kinds of animals, finally found his own “tribe.”  The text is all in past tense — until the very last spread which is in present tense, proclaiming the currency and the universality of childhood.

Here is my interpretation of the second to last spread accompanying the text, There was a TRIBE of KIDS (note the past tense!)

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(reproduced with permission from Roaring Brooks Press)

Since our child protagonist is not in this picture, so unlike the previous encounters, we don’t see him mimic or play act.  We see this child (looking a bit like Burt in Mary Poppins, doesn’t he?) welcoming the new child (our protagonist, off page, unseen) into a TRIBE.

 

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We, readers, along with the child protagonist, observe the scene with keen interest:

A TRIBE of kids from around the world and from both yesteryears and now, dressed much like our protagonist (in leaves, branches, and flowers,) being themselves and playing like all children might:

We watch, as they

swing, eat and play with their food,

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collect seashells and flowers,

tribe04 tribe25

play balls, crawl, balance, dance,

tribe03 tribe09

tribe11 tribe12

scout, explore,

tribe13 tribe26

take care of a younger sibling, 

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dress up like an adult (a princess, a king, a judge?)

tribe19  tribe20 tribe27

give a hug,

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dangle, slide,

tribe14 tribe17 tribe16

model, run (like an olympian with a torch,)

tribe23 tribe24

hide, and seek.

tribe28 tribe18

tribe22  tribe21

What I do not observe is the child protagonist attempting to mimic any of these KIDS, as if these are roaming animals. I also don’t see the “wildness” linked to a colonial sense of the word TRIBE (as stated by Minh C. Le and as troubling to others). I see children engaging in regular childlike and childhood activities.  And if I were to read this book with a young child, that’s how I would posit it — “Look, do you play hide and seek, just like these kids?  Do you pretend to be a king or a princess sometimes?  Do you play with your food?  Do you love going down the slides or sit on a swing?  This makes you part of the TRIBE of all children in the world.  You belong with each other and you accept and embrace one another.”

As I pointed out in the beginning of this post, my interpretation is different from some others’ views, including those of Minh C. Le’s, Sam Bloom’s, and Debbie Reese’s. All three wrote thought provoking reviews of this title — and I urge all to read them and take their concerns or potential hurt and mis-use of this book seriously.

Il Sung Na’s ‘The Opposite Zoo,’ and More by Minh C. Le (New York Times)
Le feels that the “juxtaposition of the word ‘tribe’ with the woodland utopia conjured uncomfortable associations,” and a particular image is problematic “in its echoes of the longstanding trope in children’s literature that uses Native imagery or ‘playing Indian’ to signify wildness.”

Reviewing While White: There Is a Tribe of Kids by Sam Bloom (Reading While White)Bloom finds himself in agreement with Le’s take on the book and ponders why all the reviewers for the major publications have given this book such favorable feedback when he sees even more images that are problematic.  He posits that perhaps it is due to Lane Smith’s long-time fame and status as a celebrated children’s book creator.  He also links to a page delineating the negative associations that the word TRIBE contains from the Teaching Tolerance site. Bloom concludes his essay by strongly indicating that he does not recommend this book. He writes, “If it wasn’t Lane Smith’s name on the front cover, could we more easily see the problems inherent in There Is a Tribe of Kids? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that this is a book that I personally won’t be sharing with (human) kids.”

Lane Smith’s new picture book: There Is a TRIBE of KIDS (plus a response to Rosanne Parry) by Debbie Reese (American Indians in Children’s Literature)
Reese details the picture book and focuses first on the word play and the repeated pattern of a child going through the natural world, mimicking behaviors of groups of animals, while garbed in leaves.  Reese then moves on to discuss the double spread that features a TRIBE of KIDS (children) and the specific images she finds objectionable.  She also delineates many counter-points to Rosanne Parry’s review of the book.  Reese uses words like “rolling your eyes” and “grinding your teeth” to express how irate she is with Parry’s proposed interpretation of the book’s images.

Rosanne Parry also wrote a blog post in response to Sam’s post: A Tribe of Book Reviewers (Writing in the Rain Blog). Parry writes to share her interpretation of this book and her disagreement with Sam’s take on the book as a reinforced negative portrayal of children “playing Indian.” Parry’s take on this book is in accordance with reviewers who see that there are multiple cultures represented in the book and that the book’s focus is on the importance of a sense of belonging and the warmth of acceptance in every child’s life, regardless of their origins or skin tones.  The final “snapshot” seems to encapsulate this sentiment — the kids of pale and dark skin tones locked in a friendly embrace to show their kinship and solidarity:tribehug

For those interested, here are links to all four starred reviews:

 

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18th Day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

It has become more and more apparent to me that the experience of an Asian person is so drastically different from that of an Asian American’s.

An Asian who grew up in her own country (like myself) didn’t have to struggle to be recognized or represented in books or other media.  In Taiwan where I was born and lived until my late 20s, the demographics were almost 100% ethnic “Chinese.”* Even if, like most young people, I experienced much self-doubt and dark days when constructing my own identity, dealing with my “ethnicity” was never part of that process.

On the other hand, my young Asian American students (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, Indian) must contend with the fact that their ethnic backgrounds are a significant part of their identity forming process.  Even in a city that is highly diverse, they still belong to only about 12% of the total NYC population (and about 6% of the U.S. population.)  This means that if you evenly spread out all Asian Americans in NYC, there is about 1 person of Asian heritage per 10 people in any room.  We can further break down the population by ethnic groups.  For example, there are about 20,000 ethnic Japanese and 100,000 ethnic Koreans living in New York City (approx pop 8.5 million).  This means that you will have to put about 500 people in a room to encounter a single Japanese person and about 100 people to meet a Korean person.  It is then of little wonder that many things that do not bother me in the least might really offend my Asian American students: I was never under the threat as being “the other” nor would I ever have to explain or defend my culture to my peers.

Since I can only consider Asian American youth experiences,  as an “outsider,” the only way for me to learn is first to not impose my own past experiences onto them and then to keep listening to Asian American friends and students so hopefully I can gain some degree of understanding in order to act as a supportive and effective ally.

* Due to the complex modern history this accounting is not truly accurate: there are those who migrated from Mainland China in 1949 (14%), those who had migrated from Mainland China some 400 years ago (84%), and the aboriginal tribes, who were colonized and have lost most of their cultures and languages (2%).

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17th Day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Today is for celebration!  Celebrating one of my favorite Asian American authors – Gene Luen Yang.

Gene is generous. Gene is funny. Gene is wise. Gene is brave.

Gene is generous.

In 2013, he came to my school and met with high school students in the Asian Cultures and Science Fiction/Fantasy clubs to chat about graphic novels, Boxers & Saints, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and growing up as an Asian American nerd and answer many many questions — all on his own time, without charge!

Addendum: A friend of mine pointed out to me that such “free” visits are not the norm for most libraries or authors — my school is in NYC where Gene’s publisher is located, this was part of his promotional tour for Boxers & Saints, and I and the school I work for are frequently tapped by the NYC publishers to host informal author events like this.  This is yet another case of how one person’s view can be so influenced by the circumstances and thus limited without the reminder from someone else who has the view from a different vantage point.  That said, Gene’s generosity is not limited to “free visits” but is demonstrated his willingness to engage the students and freely shared thoughts and views.

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Gene is funny.

I had the great pleasure to listen to Gene talking about Graphic Novels on a panel at last year’s USBBY Conference.  He used humor to drive home some serious considerations in a way that the audience would easily accept.

Gene is wise.

As a recently appointed National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Gene has set up a great campaign for all readers to Read Without Walls with three simply stated but significant goals that will advance the scope of diversity in any young reader’s world:

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Gene is brave.

He spoke the hard truth publicly without skirting around the issues.  One such memorable speech was delivered at the National Book Festival gala in September 2014.  You can read the whole transcript at The Washington Post.  These words were not only wise, almost prophetic, they should be heeded ever more now that so many of us get our news and views from extremely short, often volatile, and sometimes sensationalized sound bites littering the edge-less world of the Internet.

But I have noticed an undercurrent of fear in many of our discussions. We’re afraid of writing characters different from ourselves because we’re afraid of getting it wrong. We’re afraid of what the Internet might say.

This fear can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our cultural research. But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities.

After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage our readers to do the same.

I offer three further thoughts inspired by Gene’s words:

First, I think this call for “doing homework” should not be limited to authors, illustrators, or editors and publishers.  The demand of meticulous cultural research must extend to all the critics of books — we must also do our homework before delivering verdicts to praise or condemn a literary work, especially when large swatches of the text contain cultural allusions unfamiliar to us.

Second, I think it is crucial for those who are promoting works about and by diverse creators to remember that simply “of a culture” does not guarantee any book creator having understanding of the multiplicity of the entire history or full scope of that specific culture.  Even those writing “within” a culture must do their homework!

Third, although book creators must heed Gene’s call for NOT fearing of where their creative hearts tell them to go, I feel compelled to call on critics and advocates to educate ourselves on informative and productive ways to critique literature so that we may uplift the whole field.  We must figure out ways to turn our initial anger and frustration into useful and illuminating insights and advices to help improve representation and authenticity in all future books for young people.

 

 

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