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:
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.
This is a day that Swayam will always remember: he's going to be "Markundi", the boy who keeps the bridegroom (his uncle) company through the wedding preparations
When all her older siblings are away, Cora's mother finally lets her help make pancit, a Filipino noodle dish. Includes a recipe for pancit
"Even though he is confined to a wheelchair, a Pakistani boy tries to capture the most kites during Basant, the annual spring kite festival, and become "king" for the day. Includes an afterword about the Basant festival"-- Provided by publisher
Each member of a Chinese family contributes to the celebration of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Includes author's note explaining this festival's customs and traditions
Embarrassed by her clumsiness, eight-year-old Meena, an Asian Indian American girl, is reluctant to appear in the school play until she gains self-confidence by practicing yoga
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 American.
"A biography of Chinese American film star Anna May Wong who, in spite of limited opportunities, achieved her dream of becoming an actress and worked to represent her race on screen in a truthful, positive manner"--Provided by publisher)
"A brief biography of Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, five-time Olympic swimming champion from the early 1900s who is also considered worldwide as the 'father of modern surfing'"-- Provided by publisher
"A biography of Hiromi Suzuki, a Japanese American girl who, with her father's guidance, defies tradition and trains to become a sushi chef at her family's restaurant in New York City"--Provided by publisher
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.
When brothers Taro and Jimmy and their mother are forced to move from their home in California to a Japanese internment camp in the wake of the 1941 Pearl Harbor bombing, Taro daringly escapes the camp to find fresh fish for his grieving brother
"A biography of Korean American diving champion Sammy Lee, focusing on how his childhood determination and his father's dreams set the stage for a medical career as well as his athletic achievements which earned him Olympic gold medals in 1948 and 1952"--Provided by publisher
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.
"Ming and Poppy's journey takes them over sidewalk cracks and dancing shadows, past honking horns and crowded crosswalks. They greet old friends and make new ones, while sharing stories, secrets, and the sting of painful words"--|cProvided by publisher
While her mother is getting her hair done in a salon, Minji tries a new style on the dog at home
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.