One of them is Grace Lin. Ms Lin is the 2010 Newbery Medal for her book Where The Mountain Meets The Moon. The Newbery Medal is a literary award given for distinguished contribution to American literature that is written for children. I was at my local indie bookstore, when my wife pointed out Ms. Lin's Dumpling Days. Our son was in the kids' section and Ms. Lin's book was in the older kids' section, in the adjacent part of the store. As good book titles do (and should), Dumpling Days intrigued me. As an Asian-American writer, I am naturally drawn to books of Asian and Asian-American subject matter. With an Asian girl leaning over a circle of dumplings, that surrounds a Chinese rice bowl and chopsticks, I knew Dumpling Days was definitely up my alley. When I read the back cover blurb - about how a Chinese-American girl goes to Taiwan for the first time and she can't speak Chinese, I immediately knew I had go read this book since my own novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, also has to do with Asian-American identity.
My book, however, is more suited for the older YA set or the New Adult Fiction audience. Ms. Lin's, while it can be read and enjoyed by adults (I am reading Dumpling Days now), is geared for children. And, thankfully, so. Admittedly, I haven't paid much attention to children's literature until now; not just because of Ms. Lin's book but because I have a son, who's turning five in April, and I want him to have outlets and heroes (writers and characters) who are Asian-American; other than his parents, of course. Ha ha.
As far as Asian-American literature goes, most, I think it's safe to say, is for an older population. My (contemporary) writing heroes - Don Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri, Susan Choi, to name a few - don't write for kids. Heck, my books (Back Kicks and my current works-in-progress) aren't meant for young kids either. Ms. Lin's are and they give our young people a nice outlet to see what it is to be multicultural, in general, and Asian-American, in particular, in this crazy and beautifully diverse world we live in.
Another discovery I made at the same store was the Calvin Coconut series by Graham Salisbury. From my internet search, I understand Mr. Salisbury to be from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but he grew up in Hawaii. Hawaii, as we all know, is one of the most Asian-influenced states of the United States. This makes perfect sense, naturally, since it is so close to Asia and many Asian immigrants settled there. It's the most northern group of Polynesian islands and the prehistoric origins of the Polynesian people are derived from the Malay Archipelago; like the peoples of Indonesia, The Philippines and Malaysia. Anyway, Mr. Salisbury's book series has a male protagonist, Calvin, and, gauging by the illustrations on the book covers, Calvin looks very much of Asian descent. Ultimately, the Calvin Coconut series is about kids growing up with the normal trials and choices kids have to make, regardless of their ethnic makeup, again, in this crazy and beautifully diverse world and the crazy and beautifully diverse place Hawaii is. That the series has a protagonist of Asian heritage got me excited and hopeful for my son and other Asian-American children, whether in or from Hawaii or on the mainland.
In one of the books, Kung Fooey, there's a new kid in town that knows kung fu (gung fu) and his surname is Obi. Japanese, perhaps? Forget that kung fu is a Chinese martial art and that the practitioner is probably Japanese (although I suspect that Mr. Salisbury did this intentionally to further illustrate the diversity of the world he grew up in and the one we currently live in). Focus on the ethnicity of the character and the material. The books are more opportunities for our young Asian-American kids to relate to the world outside their windows.
Readers coming to books as teenagers, or in their late teens or early twenties, looking for books that relate to them in terms of their ethnic makeup will find a good sampling from which to choose. There's Don Lee (Yellow), Paisley Rekdal (The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee), Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake), Change-Rae Lee (Native Speaker), to name a few. Sung J. Woo (Everything Asian) wrote his book with a younger protagonist but, for me, the book has some adult themes that preteen readers might not immediately relate to. (I loved the book though. It's one of the few books in my library that made me cry.)
Younger people, however, don't have as many options as their older counterparts. Through the work of Ms. Lin and Mr. Salisbury, and writers like them, they do now. And, for someone like me, who came to American at age sixteen from Hong Kong, where the idea of being Asian-American didn't exist and I was just 'me,' having books like these makes a difference. It's common in Asian families not to discuss matters of inner turmoil, preferring to bury one's difficulties in order to get ahead. As the old Chinese adage goes, "One must eat bitter to taste sweet." But, whether one Asian-American kid comes from this type of environment or one that's more open, having avenues through which the child can recognise other people like him or her can't hurt.
Click here for more on The Newbery Medal.
Click here for Ms. Lin’s website.
Click here for Mr. Salisbury’s website.