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Who’s Missing? Asian and Pacific Islander American Biographies

This is the first post in a series sharing data from our collection that identifies significant gaps in representation of BIPOC characters in picture books.


This past month, in honor of Asian and Pacific Islander American (AAPI) Heritage Month — which pays “tribute to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America's history and are instrumental in its future success” — we took a closer look at our data to provide a deeper context for AAPI representation in the world of picture books.

Of the 3182 picture books in our collection, 576 titles feature Asian/Pacific Islander/Asian American characters. Only 61 of these titles are biographies, 17 of which feature Americans. This means that only 0.5% of diverse picture books on the market feature the lived achievements and contributions of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans.

A rather broad term, Asian/Pacific encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia) and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island).

https://asianpacificheritage.gov/about/

Furthermore, considering the diversity of AAPI peoples — including more than 50 countries and territories of origin — it’s troubling to see that only four are represented in picture book biographies with AAPI characters. *Note: The following books vary in terms of quality -- so not all of these are necessarily recommended titles.

Chinese (5 titles)

COMING SOON

Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines (2017) by Jeanne Walker Harvey and Tiemdow Phumiruk

As a child, Maya Lin loved to study the spaces around her. She explored the forest in her backyard, observing woodland creatures, and used her house as a model to build tiny towns out of paper and scraps. The daughter of a clay artist and a poet, Maya grew up with art and learned to think with her hands as well as her mind. From her first experiments with light and lines to the height of her success nationwide, this is the story of an inspiring American artist: the visionary artist-architect who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. -- publisher

Mountain chef

2016

by Annette Bay Pimentel and Rich Lo

Tie Sing was born in the mountains. The mountains were in his blood. But because he was of Chinese descent at a time in America when to be Chinese meant working in restaurants or laundries, Tie Sing's prospects were limited. But he had bigger plans. He began cooking for mapmakers and soon built a reputation as the best trail cook in California. When millionaire Stephen Mather began his quest to create a national park service in 1915, he invited a group of influential men -- writers, tycoons, members of Congress, and even a movie star -- to go camping in the Sierras. Tie Sing was hired to cook. Tie Sing planned diligently. He understood the importance of this trip. But when disaster struck -- twice! -- and Tie Sing's supplies were lost, it was his creative spirit and quick mind that saved the day. His sumptuous menus had to be struck and Tie Sing had to start over in order to feed the thirty people in the group for ten whole days. His skills were tested and Tie Sing rose to the challenge. On the last night, he fed not just the campers' bodies, but also their minds, reminding them to remember and protect the mountains

Biography Cross Group Oppression & Resilience

Queen of physics

2019

by Teresa Robeson and Rebecca Huang

"When Wu Chien Shiung was born in China 100 years ago, most girls did not attend school; no one considered them as smart as boys. But her parents felt differently. Giving her a name meaning “Courageous Hero,” they encouraged her love of learning and science. This engaging biography follows Wu Chien Shiung as she battles sexism and racism to become what Newsweek magazine called the “Queen of Physics” for her work on beta decay. Along the way, she earned the admiration of famous scientists like Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer and became the first woman hired as an instructor by Princeton University, the first woman elected President of the American Physical Society, the first scientist to have an asteroid named after her when she was still alive, and many other honors." -- publisher

Biography Oppression & Resilience

Native Hawaiian (2 titles)

Japanese (8 titles)

COMING SOON

It Began With a Page (2019) by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad

An elegant picture book biography that portrays the most moving moments in the life of Gyo Fujikawa, a groundbreaking Japanese American hero in the fight for racial diversity in picture books. Growing up in California, Gyo Fujikawa always knew that she wanted to be an artist...During World War II, Gyo’s family was forced to abandon everything and was taken to an internment camp in Arkansas. Far away from home, Gyo worked as an illustrator in New York while her innocent family was imprisoned. Seeing the diversity around her and feeling pangs from her own childhood, Gyo became determined to show all types of children in the pages of her books. There had to be a world where they saw themselves represented. -- publisher

A life made by hand

2019

by Andrea D'Aquino

"Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) was an influential and award-winning sculptor, a beloved figure in the Bay Area art world, and a devoted activist who advocated tirelessly for arts education. This lushly illustrated book by collage artist Andrea D'Aquino brings Asawa's creative journey to life, detailing the influence of her childhood in a farming family, and her education at Black Mountain College where she pursued an experimental course of education with leading avant-garde artists and thinkers such as Anni and Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg. Delightful and substantial, this engaging title for young art lovers includes a page of teaching tools for parents and educators." -- publisher

Biography

Write to me

2018

by Cynthia Grady and Amiko Hirao

A touching story about Japanese American children who corresponded with their beloved librarian while they were imprisoned in World War II internment camps. When Executive Order 9066 is enacted after the attack at Pearl Harbor, children's librarian Clara Breed's young Japanese American patrons are to be sent to prison camp. Before they are moved, Breed asks the children to write her letters and gives them books to take with them. Through the three years of their internment, the children correspond with Miss Breed, sharing their stories, providing feedback on books, and creating a record of their experiences. Using excerpts from children's letters held at the Japanese American National Museum, author Cynthia Grady presents a difficult subject with honesty and hope.

Biography Cross Group Incidental Oppression & Resilience

Korean (2 titles)

So who's missing here, you ask? Well, everyone else.

A Promising Trend: Anthologies

There's some great news in AAPI representation, though, in the form of brand-new anthologies. Three came out last year, one is forthcoming, and they are game-changers in the field of Asian and Pacific Islander American biography, specifically created and published independently by AAPI authors and illustrators to fill the void outlined above. Cumulatively, these titles offer child readers the opportunity to discover the lives of more than 70 AAPI people and their significant contributions to America:

With these collections as a foundation, we hope to see an increase in AAPI biographies, one entire picture book after another, each dedicated to exploring the experiences and impact of an individual, remarkable American.

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Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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