It is already June now, but did you know that May was designated as Asian/ Pacific Islander month? I didn’t! But it has been official since 1992. May was chosen because the first Japanese immigrants came to the US on May 7, 1893 and the transcontinental railroad, which many Chinese immigrants helped to build, was completed on May 10, 1869.
My grandparents on both sides of my family immigrated to Hawaii at the turn of the century from Wakayama and Yamaguchi prefectures in Japan.
My parents were born and raised in Honolulu and eventually settled in California where I was born.
Growing up in a small town on the central coast of California, I often found myself to be the only Asian kid in class, on the playground, and in public places in general. There just weren’t many Asian Americans living there. My parents weren’t affected in the same way, as I was, having grown up in an environment where they were the majority ethnic group in Hawaii. I was always aware of being “different” and internalized a sense of being “the other” from a very young age.
Not only did I not see many people who looked like me in my physical environment, I didn’t see myself in the media. I decided at a young age that in order to be on TV, I had to be a newswoman (like Tricia Toyota or Connie Chung, the only Asians I ever saw on the tube). I could never be an actress because I would never believably blend in with the television families I saw - the Bradys, the Cunninghams, the Waltons. The only show I could hope to be on looking like myself was Sesame Street. Perhaps that’s where the allure of NYC first hit me. I loved the city vibe -- and the diversity so absent in my own surroundings.
Even in my beloved picture books, I never saw kids who looked like me, with the exception of an old Japanese Folk Tales book that was published in Japan. My childhood experience has shaped how I approach my work as a children’s book illustrator.
In the books I illustrate, I try to show kids who aren’t always seen. My first book, Night Shift Daddy, written by Eileen Spinelli features a biracial family, as does Let’s Go to the Hardware Store, and Pizza Day. Good Night Engines, Wake Up Engines, Soup Day and Let’s Go to the Hardware Store feature Asian American kids as main characters. That aspect isn’t integral to the story, but that’s the point — they are just American kids who happen to be Asian.
I talk a lot about my childhood and my path to becoming an illustrator and then author in an episode from the Sandi Klein Show - Conversations with Creative Women.
Last month I was honored to be invited to speak with Sandi on her fantastic podcast! Every week she interviews creative women in various fields. Her guests have included authors, actors, activists, playwrights, directors. I was so humbled to be a part of her show and included in the list of these successful, fascinating, and inspiring women!
The topic of diversity in children’s books was also at the forefront of NerdCamp NJ which took place in May. We listened to inspiring talks by Tricia Ebarvia, Emma Otheguy, Andrea J. Loney, Jarrett Lerner, and Laurie Halse Anderson on inclusion in the classroom.
I was also on a panel organized by teacher, Julia Guthrie, on Asian American children’s book and Y/A literature with authors Aram Kim, Karuna Riazi and Emily X.R. Pan. We spoke of our own experiences and how it has influenced our work and shared children’s books with Asian American characters. A list of recommended books for teachers and librarians and readers of all ages can be found here. *
Concluding the theme of the month, on the 29th of May, I was a guest author at the 3rd Annual Hastings-on-Hudson Multicultural Book Festival and Fair. I was blown away by the efforts of ENL coordinator and Director of Diversity of the Hastings-on-Hudson School District, Jenice Mateo-Toledo, and Marie-Louise Miller in organizing such a wonderful festival. Their mission is to encourage multicultural awareness and offer books that depict lives of all children, broadening the types of stories typically available to their students and families.
It’s so wonderful that diversity in Kid Lit is being discussed and championed these days. It’s such a difference from when I was a kid. Efforts of We Need Diverse Books, Multicultural Book Day, and others like the good folks at Nerd Camp NJ and Hastings-on-the-Hudson Multicultural Book Festival and Fair are helping to bring awareness and change within the children’s book industry to reflect the lives of all children. I’m so happy to be a part of it!
It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction…
*For more a more extensive list on multiculturally diverse books, check out Mia Wenjen’s Book lists at Pragmatic Mom. :)