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
Mike Jung: More Than a Start
My six year old and three year old sons think that every book I read to them is about them. I don’t mean that they think the story relates to their life in some significant way. They believe that the one of the characters in the book is ACTUALLY, LITERALLY, and UNDOUBTEDLY them. This is because they’ve grown up with the very unique perspective of being a children’s book maker’s child. And not just any children’s book maker, but the producer of over seventy books for kids. So chances are, if they’ve pulled a book from their shelves to read, there’s a one in three chance it’s one of mine.
The other day we were reading Vampirina Ballerina, a book I illustrated a couple years ago, when my youngest was just a baby. “Look, there’s Adrien!” my eldest will always laugh, pointing at a vampire baby with a single tooth who chews on everything. And of course, it really is him.
Whenever a new edition of Alvin Ho arrives, my sons will eagerly look at the illustrations I’ve done inside, point to Alvin Ho, and say proudly, “That’s ME!” Because Alvin DOES look a lot like Leo.
I illustrated a book of poems called A Stick is an Excellent Thing a few years back, which features a cast of children of different races, and ALWAYS, ALWAYS, when my eldest stumbles across the image of a small African American boy blowing bubbles on the steps of his porch, he will thrust his finger onto the page and say “Look, there I am!” And then point at the little sister with fuzzy pompom bunches on her head, and declare, “And that’s Adrien!” And, well, they really are.
My children are colorblind, in the best sense of the word. And it’s no wonder: Theirs is a world of such a mish-mash of cultures. Vietnamese, French, American, with a Chinese aunt, a Japanese uncle, cousins from Africa, grandparents raised in Asia, Africa, and France – all of this make up their cultural identity.
Maybe it’s because of this that they think all their books, whether written by me or not, are about them. Or maybe it’s just because they’re little and the whole world revolves around them. All I know is that they see past race and skin color and sometimes even gender to find themselves in everything they read. In their mind, nothing in the world of books is exclusionary to them. A book is a passport not into someone else’s mind, but into some as-yet-undiscovered territory in their own identity.
There’s a lot of talk about the need for kids books to be both mirrors and windows. I have to confess that that hasn’t been my goal in my books. I don’t paint the world that I necessarily see or know or experience. Instead, I paint the world I WANT the world to be. I WANT to see children of every race playing together. I WANT to see an African American girl become president some day. I WANT to my princesses in my stories to have flowing gowns of silk from India, or brilliantly colored patterns from Brazil, or puffed and frilly gowns from Spain. I WANT for a kid to eat a falafel in my books to be as normal as eating a hot dog. It’s an incredible experience, being able to create a full world each time I make a book. Am I overlooking reality in that way? Probably. Am I being honest about the world? Maybe, maybe not. Does that bother me? Not at all. Because my kids see themselves in every character they read. Which is just the way I want the world to be.
About LeUyen Pham: