Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Happy Asian-Pacific Heritage Month

It's May and it's Asian-Pacific Heritage Month! Did you forget? Don't worry, I would've forgotten too, except that Paper Tigers asked me to write an article in the issue they are doing in honor of the month.

Of course, I was happy to do so. But life got busy and crazy (it seemed like I was doing a school visit every day in April!) and I wasn't able to do the research I needed for the article I wanted to write. So instead,in order to make their deadline, I ended up modifying my multicultural author post for them.

The article I wanted to write was going to be inspired by these two comments made in the reviews of Lissy's Friends. This one by a wrung sponge:
Another thing I really like about this book is that although Lissy is clearly Asian, the story is not about being Asian. There is no reference to her ethnicity, which puts her Asian identity squarely in the realm of ordinary....
(entire review here)

And this one from MotherReader:
I liked that Lissy’s way to make friends begins with doing what she likes to do and being herself. The theme of Lissy’s Asian-American heritage is not the source of conflict or isolation, but it is her special knowledge of origami that helps her break through her shyness and connect with the people around her.
(entire review here)

Both of them touched upon the fact that in the story, even though Lissy is Asian, her race and heritage is not the crux of her problem. Nor does she even think about it. Which, when you think about it, kind of unusual.

Because most books that feature Asian Pacific characters tend to focus on racial identity. About fitting in or not fitting in, about being different or celebrating differences, accepting identity. There's nothing wrong with those books. It's an important issue to write and read and make books about. Heck, I make a lot of them.

But for multicultural books to move towards what we all really want--a place where that label is no longer needed--books have to start shifting from that focus. Multicultural books have to start depicting characters in situations and with problems that are not about the racial divide, but about issues and events that all kids have.

And here was where I was going to start making a list of books where the characters were of Asian-Pacific descent, but the stories were NOT about them being of Asian-Pacific descent. But nothing was jumping up (except Ruby Lu and one book does not make a list, even if I added the sequel) and I ran out of time to research.

So I put it to YOU. What books are there where the character is Asian but the book isn't about him/her being Asian? Let me know. Maybe I can get the article in by next May.


Unknown said...

just wanted to say that i am really eager to see what people will say. i've been on the lookout for books like this for a while and so far have only found lissy.

Unknown said...

forgot to say that i can't wait to read lissy! i've preordered it

Anonymous said...

"The Paper Crane" by Molly Bang never mentions that the characters are Asian. They clearly are (or at least, the main characters are), but it doesn't matter and the book doesn't point it out. I don't think I even noticed it until I went looking for picture books with Asian-American characters.

alvinaling said...

Did you mean the main character, or just any major character in the book?

-Justina Chen Headley's GIRL OVERBOARD (coming out in January) has a Chinese-American main character named Syrah, and although there are certainly cultural issues/themes in the book, it's not about her being Asian, it's more about the fact that her father is uber rich.

-The best friend in Jenny Han's SHUG is Korean American.

-Claudia in the Babysitter Club books

-Hope in those CHEERLEADERS books we used to read

-A character in Judy Blume's JUST AS LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER--I forget her name, but one of the three main characters is Vietnamese, I think

-There are plenty of Asian-American characters in the YA novel HATERS by Alissa Valdez Rodriguez

-Jarett illustrated Max's rival in MAX FOR PRESIDENT as Asian

Although now as I make this list, I realize you probably meant the main character--I've been seeing more and more books featuring major supporting characters who "happen to be Asian"--like Cho Chang in HARRY POTTER!

I'll try to think of more...

But I completely agree. And I have seen more and more books featuring minority main characters where the person's ethnicity is not the focus of the story. IN THE BREAK by Jack Lopez is one example--the main character is Mexican American.

Grace Lin said...

Yeah, I meant main characters. I can think of lots of peripheral characters that are of minority descent, but I wanted a list of main character books.

eekono said...

Hi Grace! I'm not sure it would fit, but maybe my book, Hula Lullaby might work. It's set very much within the context of Hawaiian culture, but it's not so much about being Hawaiian as it is more universal themes, mother/child, bedtime, rhythms of nature, etc.

I'm looking forward to your list! It's exactly the kind of books I want for my daughter.

erin e. kono

MotherReader said...

Thanks for the MotherReader mention.

For a little while now I've been looking for books that feature African-American children without being an issue book, and that's hard. Now after looking around a bit, I think it is even more difficult to find books where the main character is Asian American and race isn't the focus of the book. I did find a couple for you.

Butterflies for Kiri by Cathryn Falwall. A picture book where the girl receives an origami set as a gift, but can't do it. Tries and tries and finally succeeds. Origami is in it - like Lissy's Friends - but no overt mention of her culture.

Raymond's Perfect Present by Therese Louie - I'm not even totally sure the character is Asian American, except that the illustrator is and that a review talks about "subtly drawn" asian features. Picture book about a boy who works on a present for his sick mother.

Mama Bear by Chyng Feng Sun - I haven't read this for a while, but while the mom works in a Chinese restraurant, I think the whole thing is about the girl who works to buy something she really wants. Picture book.

Moon Runner by Carolyn Marsden I believe the source of conflict in this book is the character's relationship with her friends, but she is Asian.

Skunk Scout and Later, Gator by Laurence Yep
Haven't read these, but the boys live in Chinatown (not sure which one) and it seems to focus on standard kid issues, not culture issues.

Anonymous said...

I'm off on other shores so I can't get to libraries or bookstores to look, but I thought that perhaps you should look at books from Children's Press or Lee & Low.

Anonymous said...

Fresh Off the Boat by Melissa de la Cruz? It's been a couple of years since I read it so I could be totally wrong, but I remember Vicenza's issues as having more to do with being an immigrant and a change in social status than race. And if you're including hapa characters in YA books, Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart.

Thanks so much for this post. I also would love to see more books in which race is not the point. It seems like all the books with Asian-American protagonists that I come across are about someone discriminated against, ashamed of their heritage, a first or second generation American, or visiting the mother country...

Anonymous said...

And Name Me Nobody by Lois-Ann Yamanaka!

ElsKushner said...

Umbrella, by Taro Yashima

and in the chapter book category, there everyone's favorite genius, Millicent Min!

Rita said...

Shucks! The ones I was going to mention are already here! (Millicent Min, and . . . it's not an issue in Stanford Wong, either, is it? I don't think so!!). Also, I thought of Elaine in Shug right away, too, even though I knew she wasn't what you meant. (Yay, Alvina!)

Actually, I thought about this with Shug a lot. I just finished it last week (loved it insanely) and kept turning over in my mind, What if the main character had been the Asian? Would that have distracted us from the joy and simplicity of the story itself?

I ended up concluding yes, probably. Though I would love to know what others think.

I'm also glad to see MotherReader's mentions here, because I recently read Raymond's Perfect Present and Butterflies for Kiri. Great examples!!

I am always interested in this issue.

I'll check back to see what everyone else comes up with!

Re: Shug, it's always hard to imagine a book written any other way once it's been written so perfectly. So I know it's not a fair question.

Rita said...

Oh, what about Dragon Dancing, by Carole Lexa Schaefer and illus. by Pierr Morgan? It's a multicultural picture book and not exactly about a non-culture-specific situation, but it's never directly about being Asian, either (although the character's name is Mei Lin and it's clear she is).

I like that book. :)


Anonymous said...

what is vicenza's last name in this book?