By Emily Grosvenor
When I found out my sister and her Chinese-American husband were going to have their first child, I began scouring my personal library and then my favorite online booksellers looking for books with Asian children in them. Specifically, I was looking for those snuggle-in, mother-baby bonding board books capturing what it is like to fall in love with your child as he grows.
I found nothing.
Tough times for diversity demand subversive measures. Like a Sharpie to your favorite children’s book. So I grabbed my nearest black marker, and colored in the hair of the spiky-haired blond kid on one of my own family favorite, I Love You Through And Through, by Bernadette Rossetti Shustak. I took a special, subversive pleasure on the page “I love your hair and eyes. Your giggles and cries.”
Parents and caregivers with children who have mixed ethnicity face a special challenge when looking for books. The goal shouldn’t be to give them all books that look like them. But rapidly changing demographics of our country have not corresponded to an equally fast change within publishing. It is still difficult to find books with characters of mixed heritage.
Now that I’m writing my own picture book I know how dire the situation is for diversity in the genre. Half of all children reading picture books in America today are non-white, according to a 2013 study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. And yet, only 10.48% of children’s books featuring non-white characters. Latino children make up 25% of kids in public school, but only 3% of human characters in children’s books.
Many books featuring Asian-Americans, while wonderful unto themselves, deal specifically with the theme of having parents from two cultures. That’s great, but there just aren’t a lot of books where the characters just are an ethnicity.
It’s not difficult to see how this happens. Traditionally, publishers pick the illustrators for picture books, not the author. They have power to craft a character based on who they think is the largest possible audience for that book. It’s not surprising, really, that a book about a little girl who hides in the patterns of nature would end up being a little brown-haired girl, or, heaven forefend, a little boy.
My forthcoming children’s book about falling love with tessellations (repeating tile patterns) features a “Chinese-American girl.”
Now a white writer who chooses to make her characters non-white faces special challenges and must do her due diligence to create a story that is culturally sensitive and true to experience. Who am I to write a Chinese-American child into any story?
The organization We Need Diverse Books, launched first as #weneeddiversebooks in 2014 by a group of motivated industry leaders, writers, illustrators and diversity advocates, provides excellent resources for writers looking to incorporate diverse characters in their books. The information flies in the face of every edict to new writers – write what you know – and challenges them to do the research to find out what they don’t know. That means, avoiding stereotypes and making sure they are inadvertently attaching ethnicity to villainy, for example.
In my case, my character’s ethnicity served a personal purpose. I wanted my niece, Piper, to always have a book that looked like her, and I wanted it to be a book that didn’t deal specifically with the issues of having parents from two cultural or ethnic heritages. I also wanted my own sons to read books that looked like their cousins. The message I want to send them is not “appreciate the differences,” but “we are the same.”
But that doesn’t mean I won’t be testing my book with an audience of Asian-American moms, dads and kids from various family constellations before my book goes to print. I want to know what is working and what I may not have thought of, the subtle ways the existence of ethnicity shapes even the simplest children’s story.
As for the kid testers, I haven’t found a single one that looks at my character, Tessa, and thinks: She’s half-Asian! My favorite response to date came from our friend’s four-year-old, blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter, Lennon.
She said: “I’m Tessa, too. Because she’s smart and I’m smart.”