Representations of Asians and Asian Americans in Recent Picture Books

As Asian American and Pacific Islander (API) Heritage Month 2018 winds up,  the Diverse BookFunder has 291 Asian/Pacific Islander/Asian American characters identified in our current collection of picture books. (We are constantly adding titles, so these numbers keep changing. Also, we code by character, not title, so a number of these characters may appear in books with white protagonists or multiracial casts. For instance, seven titles portray adopted Asian children, usually in non-Asisan families.)

At first glance, a few aspects of representation become clear:

  • Although the characters come from a wide variety of countries, it’s nowhere near fully representative of the diversity of the API diaspora. For instance, there are almost no characters from the Pacific Islands. Four books take place in Hawaii; otherwise, Pacific Islanders do not appear in the picture books we’ve found published since 2002. (Let us know of any titles we’ve missed!)
  • In children’s picture books, “Asian” = Chinese, Japanese, Indian, or Korean. Although characters from 25 ethnicities are identified, these four dominate (Chinese - 73 characters, Japanese - 48, Indian - 38, Korean - 19). Each of the 21 other Asian ethnicities are represented by fewer than ten characters; characters from many other API ethnicities don’t appear at all.
  • Close to half of Asian characters are shown living outside the U.S., 52 in China, 43 in Japan, 33 in India, and 10 in Korea. 43 characters were identified as immigrants.
  • API characters appear most commonly in books that depict cultural distinction. Half of the characters appear in stories focused on cultural particularity, our “Beautiful Life” category. Another quarter are folktales.

These titles show some of the range of representation of Asian and Asian American characters in recent picture books:

Cultural Moments

Approximately half of the titles featuring Asian characters take readers on cultural journeys to encounter traditions, foods, celebrations, language, and other markers of culture, in countries across Asia or brought by immigrants to their new homes. These stories offer reflections for Asian children and for everyone else, opportunities to learn how others live.

Significant Lives

Athletes and artists, scientists and film stars, and innovators and activists (including Gandhi in three books and Malala in two) are among the figures portrayed in biographies of Asians and Asian Americans.

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Struggle for Equity

Half of the six titles featuring Asians in our Oppression category are about Japanese internment, including Fish for Jimmy. Another tells the story of Gandhi’s March to the Sea in response to the British colonial government’s prohibition on Indians harvesting their own salt. Two are biographies of Asian Americans facing prejudice in their fields: Anna May Wong in film (see Shining Star above) and Sammy Lee in Olympic swim competition.

Starring Asian Children

A handful of titles feature Asian child protagonists in stories that Any Child might relate to, without identifying cultural markers in the text.

Anne Sibley O’Brien is a children’s book writer and illustrator who is active in diversity education. She is a co-founder of the Diverse BookFinder.