Why I Took A Sharpie To My Favorite Kids’ Book

Why I Took A Sharpie To My Favorite Kids’ Book

Litlle girl reading lot of books, sitting above the pile of books. **** All inside the page of the book had been altered/changed. *****

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.”

Emily Grosvenor is an Oregon-based writer. Follow her @emilygrosvenor. Her children’s book Tessalation! is available for pre-order. Follow her @emilygrosvenor.

Photo: @OtnaYdur

A Future Letter From Your Crying Child

A Future Letter From Your Crying Child

By Emily Grosvenor

tumblr_n00zmmBaZQ1sn7lxto1_1280You were that mom who wanted to find the lighter side of things and connect with strangers over how hard it is to be around toddlers. You were the mom with the Nikon standing between me and a pair of open arms. I was the kid, your kid, the one holding the flower pot wailing my eyes out.  Your punchline. Your punching bag. A tiny guy with feelings larger than the Internet.

I cried. You snapped a pic. You tried to read my mind. You gave me a funny caption, one of those captions that gets at the very heart of what it is like to interact with someone who can’t use his words: “I planted a flower in the pot he gave me.” And then there I was with our pot, on a stranger’s website about stupid stuff toddlers cry about. 142,365 “Likes.” A book deal. And before I can even write my name, I’m on the cover because you were one of only three people submitting images who had a high-res camera.

I’m on page 35 in a book you had to buy yourself. That year, you bought copies for everyone in our family for Christmas. You handed it out at the office. Within days, everyone I met wanted me to show my sad face.

You really could have stopped there, Mom. You didn’t have to take my fame and turn it into an Internet empire. You didn’t have to start taking photos of my untouched dinners and launch a Tumblr called “Shit My Kid Didn’t Eat.” I actually ate that prosciutto and melon risotto, Mom. You didn’t have to mess up my birthday cake every year to get on Cake Wrecks. You could have left my prominence as a fleeting blip. Instead, it became a thing, like family game night, except every day and for the rest of my life.

You’d set me up on the porch with the flower pot and see if you could recapture the magic. I cried a lot at first. Not about flowerpots by the way. I was crying because it sucked, Mom. Getting your picture taken when you’re crying sucks. I stopped crying after a while, until I learned how you can turn on the waterworks and fake it. My face can’t actually make that kind of sorrow anymore, mom. Trust me. That shit can’t ever be that real again.

Over the years, my hair darkens and the lines furrow into my brow and my nose grew from its tiny nub, my teeth fall out and grow back in again, but I still there, crying for the camera, sure. But each year you record something different. There I am, as an eight-year-old, aware of the joke, mugging for the camera. There I am, 13, more than kind of annoyed, eyes rolling as far back in my head as they go. There I am, 14. I had asked you if I could wear one of those masks from The Scream and you said no. There I am at 16, flower pot in hand, giving you the finger. At 18, I still love you so I do it for you, Mom.

I tried to own it for a while. I tried to make it part of my identity. For a couple of years, I took myself all over the world with the pot. I held up the tower of Pisa with it. It sat on a wall at Machu Piccu. It saw the tulip fields of Amsterdam. I took it through the ancient bonsai gardens of Japan. I made some Pol Pot jokes backpacking with it through Vietnam. Kind of felt bad about that one. But really, all I wanted to be was that Nirvana baby, floating in a sea of aqua after the mighty dollar dangling from a fishing hook. I could have disappeared into normalcy until years later, when journalists would have to track me down to find out what happened to that kid with a flower pot. But that never happened, Mom. Instead, you launched your website with master SEO strategy, www.whyIlovepot.com and posted a picture of me crying every day with the same flower pot. For the next 23 years.

I’ve found some friends in this crying game. I’ve stopped short at gathering for the bi-monthly support group meetings of the kids that ended up in the book. They’re a whiny lot. The littlest things set them off. It’s almost like they think they can get attention by crying in public. There is a lot of group hugging. They’re all trying to recapture their lost youth or something. All of them seem to have some kind of unprocessed anger towards their parents. I follow their online ranting, though. All text, of course. Most of us don’t own cameras. Or kids.

Here’s the thing, Mom. You were wrong. I wasn’t crying because you put a flower in the pot I gave you. I was crying because you planted petunias.

Emily Grosvenor is a travel writer and essayist in McMinnville, OR. She blogs at www.pioneerperfume.com.

This image originally appeared on the blog Reasons My Kid is Crying

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