August 2007 Archives

Over at Chicken Spaghetti, author and educator Pooja Makhijani has written a very nice review of Romina's Rangoli. Pooja is the author of Mama's Saris and gives presentations to teachers and librarians about "representations of South Asia and the South Asian diaspora in children's literature."

Pooja says, "Romina's Rangoli is a very satisfying book. And like Uma Krishnaswami's Bringing Asha Home (Lee & Low Books, 2006), Romina's Rangoli allows an ever-growing demographic--bi-racial, bi-cultural children--to see themselves in the pages of a book. "

Publishing and the Obligations of Ethnicity

Does it make a difference to you if an author of a cultural book does not come from that cultural background?

While anyone is free to have a personal opinion on the matter, most people's influence can only go so far as their pocketbooks; money talks when it comes to the book-buying market. When publishers make choices, however, the consequences are far greater. Every book that is not published means that a voice is not heard. Do publishers have an obligation one way or the other to the ethnic stories that reach the market? Should publishers look at factors such as ethnicity when making editorial decisions?

Some publishers, like Children's Book Press, pride themselves in precisely that minority representation. That is their marketing platform: not only do they publish stories that reflect our diverse communities, but they are supporting minority artists themselves by given them opportunity to present their words and pictures.

As a publisher and editorial decision-maker, I choose to approach this issue differently. While I think that representing minority artists is an extremely important task in today's market, I still read manuscripts and choose corresponding artwork completely blind to the author or artist's ethnicity.

This reminds me of some of my cousins who are, like me, Chinese American. When we were younger, they would insist that they would only date Chinese boys. Not me, I said. Finding the right guy is hard enough. Why would I rule out most of the population before I had even met them?

Reading manuscripts is the same for me. I don't want to rule out a story just because of the author's ethnicity, and besides, it is often impossible to tell from a writer's name what their cultural background she has. Am I to ask an author of an exciting manuscript about a Chinese American girl if she is Chinese American herself? Would I reject the manuscript if I learned she was not? Finding a good manuscript is hard enough--why impose extra limitations?

The good news is that many aspiring writers interested in multicultural stories happen to be people of color themselves. That means that most of the submissions I see are written by minorities, and that's great. It means that there is a good chance our next great book will be written by a person who has a cultural or ethnic background similar to the one represented in the story. But if it isn't, that's great too.

The Hyphenated American: Contemporary Picture Books

When I started looking at the hyphenated experience in contemporary picture books, I realized that there were so many different themes that they could hardly be considered in the same category at all. I found at least three subcategories:

1. Fully assimilated families still practicing at least one aspect of their traditional culture. This is my favorite type of story, because it introduces the protagonists as if they are very naturally American, but with a twist of culture that makes them interesting.

The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin is about a girl who helps her mother plant a garden. She notices that their garden looks different from their neighbors'--not just different, but uglier. They have no multicolored flowers, just oddly shaped leaves. However, come harvest time, her mother uses these ugly Chinese vegetables to make the most delicious soup that everyone in the neighborhood enjoys together.

Mahjong All Day Long by Ginnie Lo and Beth Lo is about a family that loves to play mahjong, of course. It is full of a typical American kid's enthusiasm for the very Chinese game and the way it brings the family together.

Suki's Kimono by Chieri Uegaki and Stephane Jorisch is by far one of my favorites of this genre. Suki is a Japanese-American girl whose favorite possession is the blue cotton kimono that her grandmother gave her. She plans to wear it on her first day back to school- no matter what anyone says.

Yoko by Rosemary Wells is actually a very similar story. Although Yoko is a cat and not a person, the story works the same way. Yoko is Japanese-American, and brings sushi to school for lunch.

The Happiest Tree by Uma Krishnaswami and Ruth Jeyaveeran features an Indian-American girl who is a bit of a klutz, though she really wants to do well in her role as a tree in the school play. At the Indian market, she finds a yoga class that teaches her how to make herself "quiet inside."

2. Hyphenated kids spending time with grandparents, who teach them about the "old" ways.

Grandma and Me at the Flea by Juan Felipe Herrara and Anita DeLucio-Brock is a bout a boy who helps his grandmother sell clothes at the flea market every Sunday. There, he romps from booth to booth, encountering the community of immigrants.

Goldfish and Chrysanthemums by Andrea Chang and Michelle Chang is one of many books that features a grandparent coming to live with the assimilated family. In most cases, the children want to make their grandparent feel more comfortable. In this book, a girl has an idea of how to make her goldfish remind her grandmother of the garden and fish pond she left behind.

Nana's Big Surprise by Amada Irma Perez and Maya Christina Gonzalez also features a grandmother coming to live with the family from Mexico. The kids raise baby chicks while they attempt to cheer Nana up.

The Have a Good Day Café
by Frances Park and Ginger Park is about a Korean family. Grandmother joins the family from Korea, and together they come up with a way to make the family's food cart business successful.

3. Community-Based stories

The Candy Shop by Jan Wahl and Nicole Wang is a little-known book that I love. Daniel, an African-American boy, and his aunt arrive at the candy shop to find a crowd gathered and the Taiwanese owner, Miz Chu, in tears. Someone has written hateful words on the sidewalk in front of her shop.

The Day the Dragon Danced by Kay Haugaard and Carolyn Reed Barritt is another multi-ethnic story, in which an African-American girl and her grandmother attend a Chinese New Year Parade because her father is one of the dragon dancers. In fact, all the dragon dancers of community members of all different ethnicities.

Quinito's Neighborhood by Ina Cumpiano and Jose Ramirez is a simple book that takes Quinito around his community, where he knows all the members that are so interconnected to make the community work.

Lakas and the Manilatown Fish and its sequel, Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel, by Anthony Robles and Carl Angel tell about Filipino-American Lakas and his fantastical adventures within the Filipino community of San Francisco.

Recent Immigrants from Asia

Is it just me, or do most contemporary immigrant stories hash over the same themes and plot lines, just with different cultural details? Protagonist has difficult life in native country, parents bring them here, they experience culture shock, start to adapt, must help parents adapt, conflict between traditional parents' way of doing things and new American ways. Etc, etc.

There's an obvious reason for this, of course. The fact that it IS generally the immigrant story makes it the right story and the right theme for most authors. This is especially important to kids who have been in a similar situation, when they can find a book on the shelves that they can relate to. Non-immigrants can learn a lot from these stories as well. Not only do they pick up on cultural details that they would not have known otherwise, but more importantly, they realize that things so familiar to them look so different to others. Isn't this why any of us read? To experience being someone else or someplace else. Reading is the best way to put yourself in someone else's shoes, and the more we all do it, the more tolerant our world will be.

Here are some contemporary novels about immigrants from smaller Asian countries or cultural groups perfectly suited toward expanding everyone's understanding of the many different cultural identities that make up our American melting pot.

Blue Jasmine by Kashmira Sheth: a twelve-year old Indian girl and her family move to Iowa City.

Little Cricket by Jacki Brown: Kia, a twelve-year old Hmong girl, and her family flee Laos and live in a Thai refugee camp. After three years, paperwork allows only Kia, her brother, and her grandfather to move to Minnesota.

Tangled Threads by Pegi Deitz Shea: Thirteen-year old Mai and her grandmother are allowed to immigrate to the US after spending ten years in a camp for Hmong refugees.

The Trouble Begins by Linda Himelblau: Du's family immigrated from Vietnam to California when he was a baby, but he and his grandmother had been forced to stay behind. Now, ten years later, he is finally able to enter the US. Not only does he need to adapt to this new country, but he barely recognizes his own family.

Lowji Discovers America by Candace Fleming: Nine-year old Lowji moves from India to Illinois at the beginning of the summer, so he must keep himself occupied before school starts. This book is different in that it is lighthearted and comic.

Hyphenated Historical Novels

While it was difficult to find purely fictional stories in the picture book format, there are more hypenated historical novels.

Mildred D. Taylor's classic Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the first in a series of novels about the Logan family surviving the Depression. Set in the same time period, Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis carries with it an influence of the all-American musical artform of jazz.

Set in the 1950s, Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadohata is about a Japanese-American family moving from Iowa to the Deep South. In contrast, Kadohata's Weedflower deals with the Japanese-American internment during World War II, over 10 years before.

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers takes place in 1960s and is about a teen who enlists in the American army and goes abroad to fight in the Vietnam war, while during the same era, The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis brings us a fictional African-American family that drives right into the deep south.

As I have covered previously, a few books of Laurence Yep's Golden Mountain Chronicles are set in historical times about 3rd or 4th generation Chinese-American children struggling to fit in.

I know there's more historical novels out there set in America starring American-born protagonists of color. What are your favorites?

Hyphenated Historical Picture Books

While many countries have recorded histories that date back thousands of years, America in comparison is a relatively young country with only a little over 200 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But for a child, 200 years is an immense amount of history, and often the history that the American children are taught are the stories of dead white men and some prominent white women with the occassional African-American. Since white men were the ones in power, and history is often written by those in power in the image of those in power, this is not a huge surprise.

But Americans of color born and raised in America did exist throughout America's 200 year history. The following books all have to do with specific moments in American history and re-focusing the historical story on the ethnic-American experience and the struggle to succed or sometimes even survive while living in a white dominated, racist society.

Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki and illustrated by Dom Lee and Flowers from Mariko by Rick Noguchi and Deneen Jenks and illustrated by Michelle Reiko Kumata are two very different stories about the the Japanese-American internment experience during World War II. Baseball Saved Us is about a boy adjusting to the new environment of the internment, and Flowers for Mariko is about a girl whose family returns to California after years of internment and find that they have lost everything.

Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Hudson Talbot is a wonderful revisioning of American history through the perception of each mother's generation of the author's family, linked together with the Show Way quilts, which had their original purpose of guiding slaves to freedom for the Underground Railroad.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Kadir Nelson focuses on the famous heroine's journey to lead African-American slaves to freedom.

Both illustrated by Bryan Collier, Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Doreen Rappaport and Rosa by Nikki Giovanni profile two high-profile African-Americans who joined the thousands in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in the Deep South.

Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Yuyi Morales highlights the life of the Latino leader who advocated for civil rights in the 1960s for migrant farm workers in California.

Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story by Paula Yoo and illustrated by Dom Lee follows the struggles of the first Asian American to win a gold medal at the Olympics in 1948.

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Munoz Ryan and illustrated by Brian Selznick reveals how racism in America prevented the world-wide celebrated singer from singing at the Metropolitan Opera for most of her life.

As a side note, I never realized how many titles used colons until I looked at the biographies.
As we continue in our fourth week of Crossing Cultural Borders, we move from the stories of children immigrating to stories of immigrants' children, or their children's children, or their children's children's children, etc. Finally we reach what I consider to be the heart of American multicultural literature. Since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and the airing of the miniseries Roots in the 1970s, Americans have been on a journey to unearth their cultural heritages and reclaim them and rename them as uniquely American experiences. America is no longer only a melting pot, where all cultures merged into the mainstream-ness of white American culture. Like Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston said, America is now more like a mosaic, where pockets of various cultures are perfectly (often imperfectly) preserved and live side by side (sometimes integrating) to celebrate our differences.

This week we will be delving into the Hyphenated American Experience, or voices of Americans who look like (but often do not sound like) "The Other." From picture books to YA novels, these unique American stories are often the easiest to tell for the majority of multicultural authors born in America. We have lived our research every day of our lives. From wanting to have blue/green/hazel violet eyes instead of brown, coloring our hair to be more blonde/red/light brown and less black, "relaxing" our too curly black hair or perming our too straight black hair, those of us who are ethnic Americans often fight our own bodies to match the predominantly Caucasian features we see in magazines, books, movies and TV. This is especially relevant to many, many American kids today. As a child, I was constantly searching for stories where the protagonist looked like me and found very, very few. Now there are many, many more stories about Americans who look like "The Other," and many more to be published in the future.

I've already blogged a little about my personal experience writing a contemporary Asian-American protagonist, and I am extremely interested in exploring more ethnic American stories. Please feel free to comment about your reading and real life experiences.
There are so many wonderful novels written about the child/teen immigration experience from a historical perspective, but I can only focus on a few for this entry. Whether arriving to America by boat or by foot, these child protagonists are forced to work. The historical novel format allows for richer details within the text and more complex issues to be explored. While every novel features a crossing movement, some focus on the harrowing, dangerous journey to America while others show the struggle to assimilate while in America.

In my attempt to provide variety of cultural backgrounds, I noticed that each of these historical novels was inspired by the author's family background, usually the immigrant travels of their grandparents or great-grandparents.

The sequel to Nory Ryan's Song, Maggie's Door by Patricia Reilly Giff is told from two different points of view: Nory Ryan and her friend Sean. Traveling a few days apart, they are leave Ireland and the Potato Famine sail towards America, specifically her sister Maggie's house in Brooklyn. This narrative focuses mostly on the hardship of travel rather than the difficulty of American assimilation.

While the story of Nory Ryan was originally sparked by her Irish great-grandparents, Giff's A House of Tailors, is based on the life of another great-grandmother, this one from Germany. In 1870s, thirteen year old Dina belongs to a family whose business is sewing, and she hates it. When she immigrates to Brooklyn, she tries to leave sewing behind, but she cannot, as it becomes her job as she struggles to assimilate in America.

Inspired by her grandfather's story, The King of Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli features nine year-old Beniamino, a Jewish boy whose mother smuggles him on a boat from Italy to America, where living in the streets of New York, Beniamino renames himself as Dom Napoli. He starts a sandwich selling business with dreams of returning back to his mother in Italy, but soon he realizes that America is his real home.

Based on her great-aunt Lucy's memories, Letters for Rifka by Karen Hesse is written in the epistolary format, specifically letters of twelve year-old Jewish Rifka to her cousin Tovah. Scribbled in the margins of a book of poetry by Pushkin, the letters cover Rifka's travels from the Ukraine to Poland and Belgium and finally Ellis Island. She escapes soldiers, disease, storms, and quarantine to make it to America.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan is based on her grandmother's immigration story from Mexico to America. When her wealthy father dies, Esperanza and her mother flee her mother's evil suitor and journey to California, where they labor in the fields. Interesting twist of the immigrant forced to leave behind a life of luxury in exchange for poverty and hard work in America.

Besides Laurence Yep's Golden Mountain Chronicles, there are not that many historical novels written for kids and teens addressing Asian-American immigration. Nor could I find any novels focused solely on the African immigration in a historical context, though there is a wealth of well-written novels about the African-American experience, historical and contemporary.

But perhaps it is because the trend for the historical fiction immigrant novel is to explore the immigrant experiences of one's grandparents or great-grandparents. While there are third and fourth generation Asian Americans, there are many, many more first generation Asian Americans dealing not with their immigrant grandparents but their immigrant parents. Also, the immigrants ancestors of most African-Americans were most likely African slaves brought against their will to America, and the children of slaves were usually separated from their families as soon as they were able to work, so often the family history is lost.

Much of the immigrant historical fiction I've featured have been published within the past ten years, so perhaps there's more soon to be published. Please share your favorites!
With the first books published in the 1970s and the most recent book published within the past 10 years, Laurence Yep's Golden Mountain Chronicles follows the Young family from China to America as they live throughout American history. Not all of the protagonists are immigrants, but they all touch upon immigration stories.

Listed in chronological order of each book's setting, here are the relevant immigration stories:

The Serpent's Children - In 1849, eight year-old Cassia Young's family fights the Manchus. Her little brother Foxfire leaves to find his fortune in Gold Mountain America.

Mountain Light - In 1855, Squeaky Lau's family is in the middle of a feud with Cassia Young's family, but when the two actually meet, they develop a romantic friendship. To prove himself, Squeaky leaves China and travels to America.

Dragon's Gate - In 1867, Cassia's adopted son Otter follows his uncle Firefox to California to help build the transcontinental railroad during the worst winter possible.

Dragonwings - In 1903, eight year-old Moon Shadow Lee immigrates to San Francisco's Chinatown to work for his father's laundry business, and he helps fulfill his father's dream of flight.

Laurence Yep's following novels, all published more recently, feature American-born Chinese protagonists, though immigration stories are significant themes in the books as well. Really, they belong in Week 4 when we cover the hyphenated American experience, but here they are as part of the Golden Mountain Chronicles:

The Traitor - In 1885, Otter's Chinese American son Joseph meets and befriends white American Michael Purdy in a Wyoming mining town. Told from the perspectives of both boys.

Child of the Owl - In 1965, twelve year-old American-born Casey moves to San Francisco's Chinatown to live with her grandmother, who tells Casey about her Chinese immigrant heritage.

Sea Glass - In 1970, Craig Chin's family moves from San Francisco's Chinatown to the small town of Conception, California, where he faces intolerance.

Thief of Hearts - In 1995, half Chinese American, half white, all American Stacy, Casey's daughter, lives in a San Francisco suburb and is forced to confront her Chinese heritage when her parents ask her to befriend a newly immigrated Chinese schoolmate.

As a whole, the scope of history taken from the immigration and Chinese American angle shown in Laurence Yep's Golden Mountain Chronicles is impressive. As I am reading my way through these novels, I often question whether the Chinese-born protagonists are overly too American in their voices and points of view, but Yep's fast-paced writing style often propels me forward towards the end.

I noticed that as soon as we enter the 1960s, the Chinese Americans are American-born rather than immigrants, which are secondary characters in these later novels. This shift in protagonist's original nationality makes sense because Yep is chronicling a Chinese American family. Yet, there are still many modern-day Chinese immigrants adjusting to the strange country that is America. Interestingly enough, all the contemporary Asian American immigrant novels that I'm researching are not about Chinese immigrants. Anyone have any suggestions? Also, I'm wondering are there any other immigrant series written by one author.
As a country of immigrants, America's roots lie in its diversity, but what happens with the immigrants settle and have children of their own? And when their American-born children have children in America?

During the first three weeks discussing Crossing Cultural Borders, the border has always been a physical boundary which the protagonists cross. Yet with these American-born characters that look like The Other, the cultural boundary is no longer a tangible physical line like a country border. These novels deal with a meshing of two or more cultures within the characters' own life experiences. The protagonist's specialized private life of specific customs and values (education and filial piety for Chinese, language, and food often are completely different and alien compared to the mainstream American lifestyle ouside the home.

Especially true for immigrant families, often one or a few racial minorities living in a predominantly white society results in the Isolated Other.

Based on the author's childhood, The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin is about 10 year old Pacy's reclaiming of her Taiwanese heritage while living in upstate New York.

How Tia Lola Came to Stay by Julia Alvarez is about 10 year old Miguel adjusting to his parents' divorce and his new home in Vermont, so different from his old home of New York City. When his Spanish speaking aunt from the Dominican Republic visits and lives with them, Miguel reclaims his own Latino heritage.

In First Daughter: Extreme Makeover by Mitali Perkins, 16 year old Sameera is the adoptive South Asian daughter of a presidential candidate. To help her dad's campaign, she undergoes an extreme makeover to look more white. In the end Sameera rejects the makeover and embraces her South Asian culture.

In Girls for Breakfast, high school senior Korean-American Nick Park is "the only non-Anglo-Saxon student in suburban Connecticut," and he thinks his Otherness is the reason why girls won't date him.
While many ethnic Americans live in certain parts of the country where they are often the only minority, the opposite is also true in America, typically in more urban areas. There are often enough numbers of a race or nationality reside that they form a kind of closed community. Examples could be a Chinatown in San Francisco or a Little Italy in New York City or an African-American neighborhood in the South or a Latino barrio in Texas. In such a setting, often the protagonist does not even know he is The Other, and can lead to either the discover of his Otherness or an issue-related story that does not focus solely on multiculturalism.

Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers is about the life of 12 year old African-American Jamal, who is trying to do the right thing but who gets into trouble when he joins and tries to lead Scorpions, an inner city gang.

The First Part Last by Angela Johnson tells the story of 16 year-old African-American single father who struggles to juggle school, friends and take care of his newborn baby girl all on his own. The narrative moves back and forth between the "now" of fatherhood and the "then" when Bobby and his girlfriend relate during her pregancy.

Tyrell by Coe Booth is about a 15 year old African American boy whose family lives in a homeless shelter in the Bronx after his father was sent to jail. Forced to drop out of school to take care of his little brother and support his mother, Tyrell is torn between keeping his girlfriend and figuring out the best way to get his family out of poverty.

The Tequilla Worm by Viola Canales follows 14 year old Mexican-American Sofia as she leaves her family and her small town Texas barrio neighborhood to attend an elite, mostly white boarding school, where she received a scholarhip. In the alien environment of the boarding school, Sofia discovers her true self.

Sharon Flake's first novel The Skin I'm In shows the self-discovery journey of 12 year old Maleeka, who is teased at school for her dark skin and homesewn clothes.

Apparently skin color is a huge indication of beauty among many African-Americans. The lighter one's skin tone, the better. The same can be said for Indians from Asia as well as many other Asian cultures. While perhaps some Asian cultures especially might few fairer skin as beautiful because long ago it meant one was a person of wealth and didn't have to labor hard in the sun, there might also be a racist component. That is, to be more fair brings one closer to becoming white, the majority race of America.

Also, often the clash in cultures is greatest when one's parents are the immigrants, and the protagonist is the first generation born in America. By the third assimilated generation, the knowledge of non-American languages and customs usually disappear, though food may be retained. But unlike children and grandchildren of European immigrants, all other descendants of ethnic immigrants must deal with looking like "The Other," whether the children be 100% ethnic, half ethnic and half white, or somewhere in between. With perhaps the exception of African-Americans, most overcoming a community history of slavery and segregation, an ethnic American could be a fifth generation American and still be approached by mainstream white Americans with the question, "Where are you from?"

Bi-racial Protagonists

In addition to the bi-racial Stranger in a Strange Land novels depicting American teens searching for the cultural roots, many bi-racial or multi-racial children are struggling for identity within America. Here are some fictional stories about children who are half or part ethnic and one hundred percent American.

In Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa, half Cuban, half Polish Violet has just turned fifteen, a milestone in any Cuban girl's life. Violet acquieces to her Cuban grandmother's plans for a quinceanero, a celebration of her 15th birthday. During those plans, Violet discovers her Cuban roots for the first time.

Nothing but the Truth and a Few White Lies by Justina Chen Headley shows half Asian, half white Patty Ho's shift from wanting to be 100% white to accepting her Asian heritage at Stanford math camp.

Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith is about a part Native American 14 year old who deals with the loss of her best friend by exploring her Native American heritage.

The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson features Stagerlee, a 14 year old girl who is not only bi-racial (half black, half white) in a predominantly black neighborhood, but she is also questioning her sexual orientation.

Also by Woodson, Miracle's Boys are about three orphaned brothers, aged 13 to 23, who are half Puerto Rican, half black. When their mother dies, they must deal with their grief in their own unique way in addition to confronting racism. Eventually they come together as a family.

The struggle for identity for bi-racial kids especially must be very difficult, as not only do they look different from the mainstream, they usually look very different from one or both parents.
The hyphenated American novel gives voice to characters living the American minority experience. Those of us who look like The Other are usually vividly aware of our differences from the mainstream. We know there are different ways of living than most mainstream white Americans could even imagine, and this knowledge lends itself easily to thinking outside the box. Thus, many multicultural Americans have experimented with the traditional narrative format of the novel.

The novel in verse, though not exactly a new format (think Homer's Odessey or Illiad), has only recently within the past decade become extremely popular among young adult writers. Perhaps because of the conciseness of poetry. Or the ease of reading shorter lines. Or perhaps because the form of poetry lends itself more easily to emotions. Here are some hyphenated American examples:

Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson is about 11 year old African-American Lonnie who poignantly shares his memories of losing his family in poems, a result of a teacher's assignment.

Street Love by Walter Dean Myers is a free verse depiction of the romance between two African-American teens living in Harlem but separated by socio-economic lifestyles. 17 year old Damien has been accepted into Brown University when he falls in love with 16 year old Junice, taking care of her little sister after their mother was recently sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Also told in free verse, Seeing Emily by Joyce Lee Wong is about a Chinese American girl's struggle to come to terms with her own identity between her private Chinese restaurant home life and her public American life in Virginia.

Other hyphenated American authors have experimented with different narrative forms.

Even newer and more popular than the novel in verse is the graphic novel (think comic books with a long narrative arc), and one of the most recently distinguished young adult graphic novels is American Born Chinese by Gene Yuan. The narrative interweaves three different stories: the legend of the Monkey King, a contemporary Chinese-American story of a teenage boy trying to fit in a predominantly white school, and a parody of a whitewashed Chinese-American boy perpetually embarassed by his over-the-top horrible Fresh Off the Boat Chinese cousin. All these stories deal with the search for identity and coming to terms with their true selves.

About a teenage African-American boy on trial for murder, Monster by Walter Dean Myers is told mostly in a screenplay format mixed with sketches and vingettes of traditional narrative scattered throughout. Not only does this fit with the character of the protagonist who aspires to be a fiimaker, but the format of the screenplay distances the reader and allows the reader to witness the prosecution like a jury member to decide if Steven really is guilty or innocent.

About a 12 year-old Korean American girl's science experiment focusing on silk worms, Project Mullbery by Linda Sue Park is especially unique in its format, where the traditional narrative is interrupted throughout with interviews between the author and the main character. This format breaks the rules of traditional novel storytelling and much like in theater when the actors directly address the audience, these author/protagonists dialogues break the fourth wall of the narrative and exposes some of the author's creative process to the reader.

Next week we will be exploring how writers experimentally cross outside their own cultures.
During our fifth week of Crossing Cultural Borders, we will explore the controversial topic of writers writing outside of their ethnicity and cultural background.

As a writer, I've heard over and over again to "write what you know" because the writing will feel more real. But I'd like to analyze the different ways of writing what you don't know.

And oh, there are so many issues!

Our Related Postings:

White Authors Writing Ethnic

When I was a kid, Farewell to Manzanar was the only Asian American story that I had ever studied. Nothing else was easily available except The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. I thought that this author was Chinese or Chinese-American, and I was so excited to find another author who was Asian. Then as a teen, I discovered to my horror that Pearl Buck was white.

I thought how dare Pearl Buck write about the Chinese experience? I assumed she was a middle class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant woman who had never visited China, and even if she had, she would have seen it through her Amiercanized lens. I was incredibly upset because why couldn't a real Chinese person have written The Good Earth? Plus, in the movie version, the directors/producers decided on a white actress in yellow face rather than casting a real Asian-American actress. And guess who won the Best Actress Oscar?

What I didn't realize at the time was that Pearl Buck's childhood experiences were much like my own childhood experiences of being The Other. Surrounded by mostly Chinese people, Pearl's first language was Chinese, even though she was taught English by her mother. So even though she looked white, Pearl's sensibilties therefore were mostly Chinese mixed with the American influences of her parents.

I remember at a recent Asian-themed Reading the World, a multicultural children's literature conference, the amazing Katherine Paterson was a keynote speaker. Now, I am a big fan of Katherine Paterson's writing, but I wondered why she was invited to speak alongside ethnic-American authors like Ed Young and Linda Sue Park. I thought, couldn't they have invited someone more representative of the ethnic-American or even purely Asian voice?

The reality was, tall white American Katherine Paterson was born in China and spent a significnat amount of her childhood in China. She had lived in Japan for four years pursuing her graduate degree. So despite her white American appearance, Katherine Paterson was perhaps more in touch with some Asian sensibilities that than many Asian-Americans.

No matter who writes the novel, it needs to be authentic.

Here are some very recent examples of novels featuring ethnic protagonists written by white authors:

J.L. Powers' debut gritty YA novel The Confessional about male conflict between Mexican American and white American is already causing controversy, but not because of the fact that the author is female and white. During her childhood, Powers grew up in a barrio on the border of U.S. and Mexico as the only white kid in her class, and that lends an authenticity to her novel.

Jeff Stone sold a 5-book kung fu series called The Five Ancestors, all featuring Asian protagonist children, for a reported $500k advance, and his credentials for writing the novels is his black belt in martial arts.

Though Alan Gratz was born and bred in the American South, his first novel Samurai Shortstop is about two of his interests, baseball and Japan. He researched for months before writing the first chapters.

There are many more Caucasian novelists like Katherine Paterson and Gloria Whelan who write realistic fiction in other cultures. My favorite fantasy author who easily writes in different historical and cultural contexts is Donna Jo Napoli, and from a past conversation with her, I know she researches everything before, during and even after she writes her drafts. The bottom line is, do your homework.

Also, Rene (not to be confused with Shen's Renee) wrote a great thought-provoking post at La Bloga about writing multicultural picture books outside one's culture.
When I rediscovered my love for creative writing in college, I wrote the inevitably autobiographical stories thinly disguised as fiction that most writers need to get out of their system early in their journey to mastering the craft of fiction. None of the stories were any good. Then out of college I started writing stories about white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) women old enough to be grandmothers who lived in small towns in Texas. So completely not what I looked like. So completely not what people expected I should be writing. Yet I thought there were interesting seeds. A writing teacher suggested that focus more on "what I knew." I argued that I knew Texas culture, having grown up there, so I liked to think of those early stories as authentic.

Regardless, I might be just talking about myself, but I do believe that because we had to integrate two or more different cultures in our lives, many ethnic Americans (especially first generation born in American) have developed a capacity to really put themselves into other people's shoes and see the world through perspectives quite different from their own. That skill is extremely useful for writing fiction, though it's not the only skill needed. The flip side is that ethnic Americans take for granted details about their private culture which may be viewed as different and exotic to the mainstream American.

While Lisa Yee certainly looks Chinese-American, she sounds 100% mainstream, though in a good way, especially when she is reading from her newest novel, So Totally Emily Ebers. Emily's story is third in a series of novels, and since Millicent and Stanford are both Chinese American, Emily is the first Caucasion point of view character.

Even though I understand the great need to create authentic multicultural novels featuring multicultural protagonists, I'm actually surprised I couldn't think of more ethnic American authors writing realistic stories with white American protagonists.
Until we finish our Crossing Cultural Borders series, this post will remain as the introduction. Newest post is directly below.

Please feel free to check out our Series Overview, where you can click on the the various weekly topics to find specific articles of interest. Or you can go here, scroll all the way down and read up to catch up! We welcome comments on all posts, old and new.

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Blog Contributors

Renee Ting is the President and Publisher of Shen's Books. She is the author of The Prince's Diary and the blog, Renee's Book of the Day.

Emily Jiang is a writer of children's and YA literature. She also blogs at TLeaf Readings.

Shen’s Books is a publisher of multicultural children’s literature that emphasizes cultural diversity and tolerance, with a focus on introducing children to the cultures of Asia.

Through books, we can share a world a stories, building greater understanding and tolerance within our increasingly diverse communities as well as throughout our continuously shrinking globe.


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