Who Gets To Tell My Story? Images of Asians in Picture Books
There has been much discussion lately about diversity depicted in children's books and slightly less discussion about diversity in the creators of these books. While some publishers (Lee and Low and Little, Brown come to mind https://www.leeandlow.com/writers-illustrators/new-voices-award
are making gestures in the direction of diversity (http://www.salaamreads.com/), I see more of the same talent occupying these coveted creative roles with books that feature non-white characters. Although this does not invoke the same public outrage as Hollywood using Caucasian actors to play non-Caucasian roles, I do see parallel politics at play. If white people get to tell the white stories and also get to tell the brown stories, brown people have no voice.
In examining the representation of Asians in books created by Asians and books created by Caucasians, I came across images and descriptions that raise questions ---- is this offensive because it was created by someone outside of the culture being depicted?
In Claire Huchet Bishop's The Five Chinese Brothers (1938, Coward-McCann, illustrated by Kurt Wiese), we see all five brothers looking identical. In fact, every person in the book looks like every other person in the book. And they are YELLOW. Although three color separation had limitations, the decision to give yellow skin to everyone in the book was a deliberate design choice, and not a sensitive one.
The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack and illustrated by Kurt Wiese (1933, Viking Press) also has the characters looking quite yellow, but tempered with red, which softens the effect somewhat. Ping has been criticized for depicting Ping as living with his extended family of ducks, saying that the implication is that Chinese families are enormous and live together and that it is a stereotype. The human family in the story consists of two parents and three children, with no mention of any other relatives. And they are on their houseboat, so presumably no extended family is living there with them. Ping may be inappropriate because of the spankings in the story, but I'm not sure that having a large family of ducks is offensive. Do we criticize elements in a book more eagerly when the creator is not from the racial group being depicted?
In Crow Boy, by Taro Yashima (1955, Viking), this image would be accepted as universally offensive. An image of a Japanese child teasing another Japanese child, drawn by a Japanese author/illustrator.
I see yellow skin. This book won a Caldecott Honor Medal for its distinguished illustrations. Both The Five Chinese Brothers and Ping have been heavily criticized, but I don't hear a lot of discussion around Crow Boy.
Umbrella, also by Taro Yashima and also a Caldecott Honor Book (1958, Viking), is to me a beautiful example of a book that acknowledges race, but is not about race. I was very attached to Umbrella around age 5, I felt that I could be Momo, that I also wanted an umbrella and boots and I was always being told to wait.
Moving into the modern era, I want to look at Yoko, by Rosemary Wells (1998, Hyperion). I love the use of origami paper on the spine of the book, and I love the sushi endpapers. I don't love Yoko's "otherness." Yoko is teased for bringing Japanese food for lunch; the teacher is passive. Instead of stopping the bullying, the teacher plans a party where each child must bring in "a dish from a foreign country." She also says on the invitation that everyone must try a bite of each food. But no one tries the sushi that Yoko brought. After the party, Timothy tries it and likes it and they become friends. The take away here is that if you are different, you will be bullied. No adult will help. If you are lucky, you will make a friend eventually.
My final book is a beautiful non-fiction-ish picture book that flawlessly takes us to eat a fabulous meal with a Chinese-American family, Dim Sum for Everyone! (2001, Alfred A. Knopf) by Grace Lin does not make fun of anyone and does not depict the featured family as "exotic" in any way. The front endpapers feature foods and utensils and tools used to make and eat dim sum. No explanation or definitions, just the item and its name, in English. Some things will be familiar to most readers (bell pepper) and some things may not (taro), but it is clear that they are all part of the delicious meal that we are about to see. The back endpapers show the delicious dishes that a person can choose from, with name in English and phonetic Chinese. Backmatter consists of a wonderful explanation of dim sum. Dim Sum for Everyone! is a perfect example of a window/mirror book that can be a peek into a new world for someone unfamiliar with dim sum and a glorious, affirming reflection for families that are closely acquainted with dim sum.
For next month's post and moving forward, please send me questions and topics that you would like to discuss that involve libraries, books, diversity, and the children's literature community. email@example.com
Fifi Abu spends her days surrounded by books that have already been created and the rest of her time writing and illustrating books yet to be born. She looks forward to a day when all children can see themselves reflected in the books they read. Ms. Abu holds a master's degree in children's literature and a master's degree in library science, is an active member of SCBWI and a Children's Book Academy graduate.
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