Today’s conversation is hosted by my friend, Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen. I’m so thankful to her and emerging scholars Ji Hong, Erika Kanesaka Kalnay, Nithya Sivashankar and Joanne Yi for sharing their conversation with us today.
Sarah: I didn’t know Asian American children’s books existed until I was in graduate school. But when I discovered them, I was fortunate to have a professor, Dr. Clara Chu, who introduced me to library and information science, a discipline in which I could research Asian American children’s literature. In the early 2000s, there were some scholars who had published research on this small but growing body of texts: Dr. Junko Yokota, Dr. Violet Harada, Dr. Lorraine Dong, Dr. Mingshui Cai, to name a few. More would emerge in the following years: Dr. Sung-Ae Lee (alone and together with her husband Dr. John Stephens), Dr. Jennifer Ho, Dr. Dolores de Manuel and Dr. Rocío G. Davis (see The Lion and the Unicorn’s special issue on Asian American children’s literature). My masters program cohort was enthusiastic about my work, but we were all studying very different things. When I became a doctoral student, I was fortunate to have a few peers—Dr. Minjie Chen and Dr. Yeo Joo Lim—with whom I could talk specifically about Asian and Asian American children’s books. We took classes, wrote our dissertations, graduated, and moved away.
Meanwhile, the publication of Asian American youth literature continued to grow. Authors and illustrators have published hundreds of books and won major awards (Laurence Yep; Linda Sue Park; An Na; Cynthia Kadohata; Dan Santat; Gene Luen Yang; Erin Entrada Kelly; Minh Lê; Randy Ribay; Jason Chin; Thi Bui; Jillian Tamaki; and so many more). More scholarship has emerged. Conferences in a variety of disciplines—including the Association for Asian American Studies (which didn’t have any children’s lit panels the first few times I went), the Children’s Literature Association (which barely had any BIPOC in the 2000s), and the National Council of Teachers of English (which established an Asian American caucus in 2015)—now have entire panels on Asian American children’s books.
So today, the landscape is very different. Almost 20 years after I began studying Asian American youth literature, I feel less alone. I’ve conferenced with Junko and Jennifer and John and had dinner with Lorraine. I’ve never met Dolores or Rocío or Sung-Ae, but I continue to admire their work. And, unlike my experience, I marvel at the emerging community of Asian and Asian American scholars who are breaking new ground on the study of Asian and Asian American children’s and young adult literature in their graduate programs. They are asking questions that I couldn’t even have imagined when I was in graduate school. So when Edi asked me for a blog post for her Asian Pacific American Heritage Month series, I invited them to join me. Their friendship and collegiality has meant so much to me over the past few years, and I am beyond excited for the research they are contributing to the field. Everyone should know who they are and their work on Asian diasporic children’s and young adult literature. I hope you enjoy reading about them and their work as much as I have.
Sarah: When was the first time you saw yourself in children’s or young adult literature? Can you share about that experience?
Erica: I am a half-Japanese, half-white multiracial Asian American, and I had a strange moment of recognition when I read Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim (2008) for the first time. Like the protagonist, I dealt with depression when I was a teenager and felt very much like an outsider. I love how the graphic novel presents a layered portrait of growing up multiracial as an experience that can be deeply felt but not always easy to grasp, and one that can be interwoven with other experiences of desire and alienation, including sexual exploration, suicidal ideation, and body image. The illustrations are gorgeous and capture this atmospheric quality through a combination of Japanese ukiyo-e and gothic elements.
Joanne: I remember devouring Sook Nyul Choi’s Year of Impossible Goodbyes (1991) as a child and feeling such surprise at seeing a Korean person in a library book. The story is about a young girl living through the Japanese occupation of Korea, the war, and her family’s escape to the south. Looking back, mine was an odd reflection. I was born in the early 80s in Seattle and knew about the Korean War mostly through stories told by my grandmother. But I was drawn to the book because it was about a Korean girl and her family—I had never seen that before in a book, and it was strange and enthralling to recognize something and someone in a book. Since then, there have been many other stories in which I have seen reflections of myself and my experience, but they are like bits and pieces of a broken mirror that are found and treasured. I feel it is possible now for Asian Americans to construct mosaics of ourselves from books in a way that wasn’t possible when we were kids.
Ji Hyun: As a Korean immigrant to the United States at the age of seven, I first saw my immigration experience in Yangsook Choi’s The Name Jar (2001) at the age of twenty-nine. Unhei’s dilemma to adopt an English name and being teased by her classmates reflect the times I underwent an identity crisis in the United States. Hence, I was instantly fascinated by the book but soon lamented that I had never encountered such Asian American literature as a youth. I believe the book would have been empowering for the seven-year-old me, Ji Hyun Hong, who rejected a part of her Korean identity to go by Jennifer until just two years ago, and to the middle schooler me who faced racism in a predominantly white, Christian, Baptist school in North Carolina as one of the first international students. Knowing now that I was not alone in the struggle to adjust to the United States is consoling, but I genuinely hope people do not miss out on seeing themselves in literature at an early age.
Nithya: Unlike Erica, Joanne, and Ji Hyun, I did not come to the United States as a child or grow up here. I was born and raised in India—a postcolonial, multicultural society—and I belong to the privileged group of people who were able to afford an English-medium education, and access to a variety of books. While my grandparents would narrate tales from Panchatantra or the Jataka at bedtime, I was exposed to British and American children’s literature both at school and in my local library. I read several books published by India Book House and Children’s Book Trust that featured characters and stories based in India, and more specifically in small towns such as the one in which I was raised. When I read Western classics or contemporary stories, it did not bother me that the children or adults in these books did not look, talk, or act like me. I had the privilege to choose between R.K. Narayan and Enid Blyton; to read stories about middle-class Indian families and upper-caste, English-speaking protagonists, as well as those by Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, and Carolyn Keene. It wasn’t until I was 21 that I realized how essential it was for young readers to be able to see themselves in the stories that they read. Till date, there have been very few stories written for children in the English language, by both Indian and diasporic authors, that provide “mirrors” (Sims Bishop, 1991) to Indians who are from marginalized communities. While I can see my privileged self being represented in South Asian and South Asian American children’s and young adult books, there remains a desperate need for a diverse representation and inclusion of characters belonging to historically marginalized groups in the pages of the same.
Sarah: How did you come to study Asian American youth literature? Please tell us about your research.
Erica: I am studying how feelings about Asians and Asian Americans have been produced through the transnational circulation of children’s books and toys, particularly during the globalization of Japanese children’s culture at the turn of the century (1880s-1920s). I have been a fan of Japanese kawaii (“cute”) culture since I was a girl, when it carried special meaning to me as a point of connection with my Asian American friends and my Japanese heritage. I have also been inspired by the work of scholars like Dr. Anne Anlin Cheng, Dr. Sianne Ngai, Dr. Christine Yano, and Dr. Leslie Bow (my advisor) who examine cuteness and other commodity aesthetics in relation to race, gender, and geopolitics. However, I came to this topic for my dissertation only after discovering an archive that reveals how kawaii has a much longer history than we often acknowledge, a history that goes back to the nineteenth century and cannot be disentangled from interimperial conflict and racial discrimination. I think that this long history of consuming Japan through children’s culture is important because it forces us to think differently about questions of racial representation, considering not only how Asians and Asian Americans are often erased in these conversations, but also how children’s books and toys can participate in the commodification of racial difference.
Joanne: I began graduate school interested in a variety of early literacies, including children’s literature, but did not intend to study Asian American literature specifically. The first paper I wrote in my first children’s literature class was on Korean American immigration experiences in picture books, perhaps because that is what I felt familiar with, and then a few years later, I found myself drawn to writing about another Korean American story, An Na’s The Fold (2008). It wasn’t until I began a half-year research study that involved reading Asian American picture books to a class of first graders that I began to clearly see that issues stemming from the lack of Asian American stories still plagued the classroom. The 7-year-olds had never heard of most countries outside of China and Japan, and no matter how plainly I explained to them that the stories were set in the United States, they kept retelling them as tales set long ago and far away in villages in China. Since then, I have focused my dissertation work on examining the bicultural representations of Asian Americans in picture books. Having surveyed over 350 books so far, I consider my dissertation work to be a love letter to Asian America through the lens of children’s books.
Ji Hyun: My research focuses on how ethnic Korean adolescents (ages 14-17) critically read and make meaning of Asian American middle grade and young adult novels that address race and ethnicity. My initial interest in reader response with young adults on social justice issues was a response to my frequent experience with microaggressions by white professors in graduate school. The specific use of Asian American literature was greatly influenced by Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen, whom I met at the 2019 International Research Society for Children’s Literature (IRSCL) congress. Her fight for diversity, equity, and inclusion using Asian American literature was apparent in our brief conversation and in her various social sites, which galvanized me to explore more Asian American literature that included the complex identities and history of Asians in the United States. In my ongoing study, Asian American literature has prompted ethnic Korean students to feel self-affirmation and form an alliance to share how their race and ethnicity affect their everyday lives. It has also encouraged some students to become activists in disrupting the school’s white literary canon by introducing books like Stacey Lee’s The Downstairs Girl (2019) and An Na’s A Step from Heaven (2001) in their class presentations.
Nithya: When I was working as a journalist with a national daily in India, I took an interest in contemporary, homegrown children’s literature with the hope that I’d be able to write reviews or features about them. Little did I know then that the middle-grade book about gender identity and growing up, Mayil Will Not Be Quiet (2011) by Sowmya Rajendran and Nivedita Subramaniam would inspire me to pursue an MA in Writing for Children. I wanted to engage in a scholarly study of English-language Indian children’s books, because there were (and are) very few academics pursuing this line of research; there is a rich body of work for children written by Indian authors; and there are so many wonderful, new books being brought out by independent publishing houses in India. It was during my MA that I worked on an essay on picture books about the Partition of India and Pakistan for a class on the history of children’s literature. This topic and the primary texts for this study stuck with me until a few years after my MA, when I began to outline the plan for my dissertation, which deals with empathy and the ethics of representation of refugees in picture books featuring South Asian and Middle Eastern characters. I wanted to examine the portrayal of events and the ethics of storytelling pertaining to forced displacement and refuge not only in historical fiction—such as Uma Krishnaswami and Soumya Sitaraman’s Chachaji’s Cup (2003), and Nina Sabnani’s Mukand and Riaz (2010) and Stitching Stories (2011)—but also in contemporary realistic fiction including Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey (2016) by Nizar Ali Badr and Margriet Ruurs. Along the way, I have also been conducting research and writing on authenticity, cultural representation, and misrepresentation in Indian and Indian American picture books and young adult novels, and have been trying to add to the body of scholarship on South Asian children’s literature that is being enriched by scholars such as Dr. Poushali Bhadury, Dr. Anuja Madan, and Dr. Anto Thomas Chakramakkil, to name a select few.
Sarah: What are your current favorite Asian American books for young readers and why?
Erica: I love Bao Phi and Thi Bui’s A Different Pond (2017) and Kao Kalia Yang and Seo Kim’s A Map into the World (2019). I used to teach kindergarten at a predominantly Hmong American school, and I cried when I read both of these books for the first time because I wished I had been able to share them with my students. In both, the attention to detail is exquisite, down to the everyday objects that populate their child narrators’ lives: a free calendar from an Asian grocery store, the first worm of spring on a sidewalk that a little girl names “Annette.” By assuming a child’s perspective, these books show how historical memory can be echoed in moments of beauty that are at once ordinary and poignant.
Joanne: One of my favorite APA books right now is Julie Kim’s Where’s Halmoni? (2017). It is a unique mix of fantasy, reality, and folktale—plus, a picture book-graphic novel hybrid, too! Clearly about Korean American kids, the story is a celebration of being bicultural. It is also just a fun ride. My kids love the adventure, humor, and mystery in it.
Ji Hyun: David Yoon’s Frankly in Love (2019) is currently my most recommended book for young adults. The book entertainingly captures Korean American young adults’ complex bicultural identity, the cultural gap between them and their first-generation immigrant parents, and the differences between Korean Americans and “Korean-Koreans.” The book also touches on the struggles of other underrepresented populations such as Black, LatinX, and LGBTQ+. The most refreshing part is the author’s full-page dedication to Hangul, the Korean language, to portray the realistic conversation of Korean parents who speak to each other in their native tongue.
Nithya: A picture book that I recently read and enjoyed is The Proudest Blue (2019) by Ibtihaj Muhammed, S.K. Ali, and Hatem Aly. It is a poignant and beautifully-told story about taking pride in one’s identity as a hijabi. The Newbery-Honor winning The Night Diary (2018) by Veera Hiranandani has been my favorite middle-grade novel since it was published two years ago. Told in an epistolary format, it is a tale of a family that is forced to migrate from their home due to the Partition of India and Pakistan. One of my most favorite young adult novels published in the recent past is Mitali Perkins’ You Bring the Distant Near (2017). It is a captivating story about three generations of Indian immigrants, which touches upon several issues concerning the diaspora such as cultural assimilation, racism within the Indian community in the United States, and biraciality.
Sarah: What excites you about continuing to study Asian American youth literature?
Erica: It is really exciting to see the range of Asian diasporic children’s literature expand, with writers and artists trying some new, playful, and often quite experimental things that challenge the idea that the primary purpose of ethnic children’s literature is to provide realist representations. I am thinking, for example, about Vivek Shraya and Rajni Perera’s The Boy and the Bindi (2016), Grace Lin’s A Big Mooncake for Little Star (2018), Minh Lê and Dan Santat’s Drawn Together (2018), and the work of Shaun Tan. I think Asian American studies also has a lot to offer children’s literature and childhood studies, given the field’s robust framework for thinking critically about topics like multiculturalism, and I am excited to be a part of these conversations.
Joanne: So many things excite me about Asian American children literature right now! There is really important growth happening in the field. In the last few years, multiracial Asian Americans, South Asian Americans and Southeast Asian Americans have become much more visible in children’s books as a result of purposeful, consistent, and agentive work by APA book creators. Asian Americans are choosing to write their own stories, draw themselves (literally) into texts, and start their own publishing houses. Simultaneously, a lot of the gaps in the Asian American narrative are becoming more pronounced, presenting more openings for authors and illustrators to fill. Finally, the #OwnVoices (Duyvis) movement is gaining traction within the publishing industry in a way it hasn’t before, and I can’t wait to see how that changes what stories are told.
Ji Hyun: Since my study on Asian American literature is tied to Asian American youth’s real lived experiences, I am excited to further listen to what aspects of Asian American literature adolescents relate to and challenge through their readings. Especially, recently published books like Randy Ribay’s The Patron Saints of Nothing (2019) and Maurene Goo’s Somewhere Only We Know (2019) that explore transnational identities of Asian Americans seem useful in understanding the intricate identities of real and fictional young adults across borders. I am also looking forward to seeing how Asian American literature serves as a tool for youth activism. I believe Asian American literature helps in the development of future generations’ critical consciousness that may lead to the creation of a diverse, equitable, and inclusive society.
Nithya: I am merely echoing Erica, Joanne, and Ji Hyun here when I say that there has been a welcome expansion in the field of Asian American children’s literature in the recent years. To tweak Sandra Oh’s iconic quote from the Emmy Awards ceremony in 2018, “It’s an honor just to be [studying] Asian [and diasporic literature at this time.]” Many of the books written, illustrated, and published by Asian Americans have received coveted awards such as the National Book Award (Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again ); Newbery Honor (Hiranandani’s The Night Diary  and Jasmine Warga’s Other Words for Home ); Printz Honor (Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also A Star  and Mariko Tamaki’s Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me ); and the William C. Morris Award (Adib Khorram’s Darius the Great is Not Okay ). This is a significant moment in history to be engaging in the scholarly study of Asian American youth literature, and to pay close and critical attention to the diversity of voices within the Asian American community. Considering how heterogenous the Asian/diasporic identity is, there is so much work to be done to unearth the richness of the body of literature about all of us. Additionally, there continue to be cases of misrepresentation and underrepresentation about Asians and Asian Americans that need persistent challenging. As the number of books being published about Asians and Asian Americans for children continues to rise, there need to be more of us reading, appreciating, critiquing, sharing, and writing about them.
Name: Ji Hyun Hong
Institution: University of Georgia
Title: Third-year Ph.D. Student
Social Media: @jhofoyoso (Twitter)