*This roundtable is a part of PEN’s new and ongoing initiative, The PEN Equity Project
When I was a child, I read everything I could get my hands on (like most people in publishing!). I would say that while the types of books and the characters therein were diverse in terms of genre and tone and personality, there wasn’t much along the lines of racial diversity. My favorite picture book as a kid was The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, which features a black boy protagonist. The only picture books I recall reading as a child that had Asian characters were The Five Chinese Brothers and Tikki Tikki Tembo, both of which I loved as a child (particularly the latter), but both of which I know now are problematic and racially insensitive.
I definitely remember yearning to see characters who looked like me in the books I read. In fact, my father tells me that I once asked him why all the characters in the books he read to me had “yellow hair.” He told me it was because that was how the author and artist chose to illustrate them, and according to him (I don’t remember this) I said, “Well, when I grow up, I’m going to change that!” I remember pretending that Snow White was Asian, because she had black hair. I was constantly looking for characters, even side characters, in the books I was reading that were Asian, and I had to content myself with the few black-haired heroines I could find (which, actually, weren’t very many at all! The Emily books by L.M. Montgomery were some favorites). When I was about 11, I do remember discovering the Cheerleaders series published by Scholastic, in which one of the cheerleaders was a Chinese-American girl named Hope, and I eagerly read the whole series despite not having any interest in cheerleading. That was the only prominent contemporary Asian-American character I recall reading in a book when I was a kid.
I was constantly looking for characters, even side characters, in the books I was reading that were Asian, and I had to content myself with the few black-haired heroines I could find…
I do think the fact that I rarely saw Asian Americans in the books I read, or the TV shows or movies I watched (Connie Chung was the only Asian woman I remember seeing on TV!), contributed to a slight case of self-hatred as a child. I often wished that I were white, that I wasn’t Asian. I moved around a lot as a kid, and this feeling was especially pronounced when I lived in an area that was very homogeneous, when I was one of the only or few non-white kids.
When I became interested in publishing, it became one of my missions to help publish books featuring underrepresented characters—and I have! And, as a Taiwanese American, I am also proud to have published books that specifically feature Taiwanese-American characters— Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen, and The Year of the Dog and its sequels by Grace Lin. These books were the first time I ever saw my specific background represented in a book. These are the books I wish I had as a kid.
I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir on this roundtable! Children want to see themselves in the books they read. And, of course, they can—I saw myself in Anne of Green Gables and Little Women and the books by C.S. Lewis, Judy Blume, and Beverly Cleary. But, there’s something that’s so magical and important about seeing yourself in a more specific way, whether it be race, or religion, or sexual orientation, or geography, or socioeconomic background, or disability, especially when you don’t often/ever see yourself represented anywhere else. It’s affirming and can make a child feel less alone in the world, not invisible. I also think it’s important for children of all backgrounds to see all types of characters represented, as it furthers empathy and cultural understanding.