This is the second month in a series of author guest posts about diversity in children’s literature and the BookPeople Modern First Library initiative. We’ve enjoyed many posts by local Austin authors and now look forward to sharing guest posts written by national authors. For more about BookPeople’s Modern First Library initiative, and for more recommendations of wonderful new and classic picture books to read, visit bookpeople.com.
Previous posts in this series:
Varian Johnson: A Better World
Meghan G., Kids book buyer: Introducing BookPeople’s Modern First Library
Chris Barton: A Modern First Library List
Chris Barton: Loved, valued, unique? Yes. Center of the universe? No.
Cynthia Leitich Smith: Books as mirrors
Cynthia Leitich Smith: This book is for you
Liz Garton Scanlon: Soul reflecting 101
Liz Garton Scanlon: Fear No Difference
Liz Garton Scanlon: All the World Is All of Us
Don Tate: When I Began to Read, I Began to Exist
Don Tate: Maybe It’s Just Plain Fate
Varian Johnson: Diversity for Our Youngest Readers
Varian Johnson: A Better World
Grace Lin: The Wishes Many Readers Don’t Know They Have
My parents, who were both born and raised in Korea, came to the United States to pursue their studies, and after meeting in Los Angeles and getting married they ended up staying for good. The complexities of that decision are more than I can realistically unpack in a single blog post, of course, but one of the effects that I never even thought about until becoming a children’s author was that I grew up in a family that didn’t have a multi-generational relationship with the literature of its adopted home.
That doesn’t mean I lacked access to books, because we did have a multi-generational relationship with books in general. Our home was always overflowing with books – most of them were my mother’s, but many of them belonged to my grandfather, and over time, an increasing number of them belonged to me. As I grew older I discovered the joys and comforts of the public library. I was not deprived of books. I was, however, deprived of books with characters that looked like me and shared my life experiences. That wasn’t because the first-generation experience my brothers and cousins had was unprecedented in our family’s history, although that was the case; it was because those books just didn’t exist.
The degree to which that literary void contributed to my lifelong struggle with feelings of alienation from my own racial and ethnic ancestry is debatable, I suppose, but I can’t help but feel it was deeply significant. I spent my adolescence in a north New Jersey town that was as monochromatic as a glass of freshly poured milk, so the bombardment of messages to conform to the standards of white America was unavoidable in my personal interactions as well as in my individual consumption of entertainment, media, and education. The unspoken pressure to perceive whiteness as “normal” and perceive my increasingly beleaguered Korean-American identity as “other” was staggering, and I was unable to resist it.
How much would my feelings of alienation from my Korean roots have been ameliorated or even avoided by the presence of books that reflected my identity and my life? It’s impossible to say, but it’s worth considering some of the things I do know. I’ve been a voracious, lifelong reader. My love of books is unquestionably one of my strongest defining characteristics. During the emotionally difficult periods of my life, of which I’ve had more than one, reading books was often the only way I could get away from the feelings of loneliness, doubt, and self-loathing that have so often consumed me. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say books have played an irreplaceable role in keeping me alive, both figuratively and literally.
I read hundreds and hundreds of books as a child. I was (and remain) entranced by the work of Leo Lionni. The cover of Leo the Late Bloomer, by Robert Kraus and Jose Areugo, evokes a full-body expression of anticipation for Leo’s triumphant emergence, especially his newfound ability to draw. Those books made a meteor-impact impression on me. What if even one of them had well and truly reflected my life as the child of Korean immigrants, the inaugural generation to be born in an entirely new country and culture? I struggled so badly, in so many ways. I needed all the help I could find, but I can’t remember reading even one such book, ever. I think the presence of even one such book would have lit me up like the noontime sun. The presence of ten such books would have been like seeing every star in the sky go supernova at once.
My childhood experiences could easily have provided fodder for ten completely different books, as could the life experiences of any child. Some of our children are lucky, because they get to see themselves and their lives reflected with that kind of variety from the moment their parents crack open their first picture book. I didn’t get to have that, however. I’m of Korean descent, and despite the fact that I’m as American as any other citizen of the United States my identity is not fully represented in children’s literature. My children (and you’ll forgive me for describing them as the most amazing mixed kids this world has ever seen) don’t get to have it either. I hope they’ll see more and more books that speak to them that way from this point on – I’m writing some of them myself – but their infancies and toddlerhoods have come and gone with the industry still wretchedly stalled at a 10% level of representation for characters of color.
I’d like it to stop there. I’d like to see every one of our children have that kind of reading experience, and ten picture books is honestly not enough, but it’s a start, and what if we can push, shove, dig, climb, and unrelentingly fight to give our kids that kind of reading experience throughout their entire childhoods? What if we can give them not just a start, but also an entire lifetime of books that reflect the whole of humanity in all its messy, tangled-up glory? That would be a wondrous thing. That would be worth doing.
Mike Jung is a father, a husband, a semi-competent ukulele player, a happy client of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, and the author of Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic). He’s also contributed essays to the anthologies Dear Teen Me (Zest) and Break These Rules (Chicago Review Press), and is proud to be a founding member of the We Need Diverse Books team.