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May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the USA, and we're happy to shine a spotlight on Ciarra Chavarria and Shuli de la Fuente-Lau and their hashtag challenge #MakeHerAPictureBook, where they strive to call attention to the amazing lives of women from Asian and other underrepresented backgrounds. Learn more about the movement below!
It was early March, the start of Women's History Month, and as Instagram book reviewers, we began working on a project that was a mashup of our missions: an Instagram Live showcasing picture book biographies that featured Asian American women. But we didn’t get very far before the conversation quickly turned to: But are there any books?
Gaps in Picture Book Representation
Turns out there are a few! There’s the one about actress Anna May Wong, queen of physics Wu Chien Shiung, the first illustrator to draw characters of color in children’s book Gyo Fujikawa, and the first Chinese-American pilots in the U.S. military - Hazel Ying Lee and Maggie Gee. We also found picture books on artists Ruth Asawa and Yayoi Kusama, Vietnam Memorial artist-architect Maya Lin, rock climbing champ Ashima Shirashi, and several on Malala Yousafzai. Since we started our conversation, we’ve come across even more.
But the problem is, it was way too difficult to track these books down. There just aren’t enough picture book biographies featuring Asian American women. And if you’re talking about picture books with Asian characters or subjects generally, it’s even worse. You know the stats. And if you don’t, here they are again.
According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s 2019 annual survey of main characters of books published that year, only 29% had main characters who weren’t White or animals/other. Of that number, only 8.7% of books had an Asian main character. And that number is even more dismal for books with Pacific Islander characters: 0.5%
Bottom line: there is a serious lack of Asian American representation in children’s literature.
Asian American History is American History
But it shouldn’t be that way. Asian Americans have always been and continue to be integral to the fabric of this country. Filipinos arrived in the United States in 1587 and established their first settlements in 1763, before the United States was even a country. They played a pivotal role in the last battle of the War of 1812, helping secure American victory over the British. (If you did not know this history, read up on the Manilamen of Louisiana.) You might have heard that Chinese laborers made up over 90 percent of Central Pacific's workforce who built the transcontinental railroad. But did you know that Chinese laborers made up 80 percent of the workforce that built the wineries in Sonoma? And at the time of the prison internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, Japanese farmers were responsible for 40 percent of all vegetables grown in California, including nearly all tomatoes, celery, strawberries, and peppers. And let’s not forget that we now have our first female and first South Asian American Vice President.
Asian American history is American history. Yet so often that history is untaught and unlearned. And through all that history, oftentimes the women are even more invisible.
So we started thinking: What is the narrative of the Asian American woman? Who tells that narrative? and How can that narrative be expanded?
Far too often the stories we hear are based on stereotypes, or ignorance, or misinformation - or all three. We need richer, and broader representation of the Asian American woman. Even among the picture book biographies we found about Asian women, there was insufficient representation. For example, where are all the picture books about American women with Southeast Asian and South Asian identities? Do they have to become Vice President before we start noticing their contributions? Representation matters, to children perhaps more than anyone.
So, we started the #MakeHerAPictureBook hashtag challenge to try to expand this narrative. To call attention to the stories we aren't hearing. Stories of amazing women, especially Asian or underrepresented women, that need to be heard - and read! Our community responded and we’ve put together a list of women we would love to see dedicated picture books about. Women like Afong Moy, Cristeta Comerford, Sugar Pie deSanto, Susan Ahn Cuddy, and Zarina. This list is by no means exhaustive (and we are still adding names!). But it is a start.
How Will The Publishing Industry Respond?
For those in the Asian community, these past several months and this past year, has been especially heavy, heart-wrenching, and full of grief. To see the scorn and hate so blatant, violent, and at times fatal is too much. To constantly struggle with erasure is exhausting.
As parents and book reviewers, we often wonder what the way forward might look like. Perhaps, it starts with pushing wider the narrative of the Asian American woman’s experience. Perhaps, that starts with learning Asian American history, because Asians are not that foreign after all. And perhaps, it starts with a picture book.
Thank you, Shuli and Ciarra! And we hope this piece not only galvanises your movement in the US, but moves people across the UK to learn about British East and Southeast Asian history, as well, and to make their stories visible.
Shuli de la Fuente-Lau is the creator of the Instagram @AsianLitforKids, and the Content Lead at LittleFeminist.com – a monthly book club subscription and publishing house. She is an educator during the day. Shuli is proudly a third culture kid who holds her Chinese Malaysian American identity with gratitude. Much of her perspective she attributes to her ability to stand in multiple places and to wrestle with what home and belonging means. Shuli lives in Oakland, California with her husband and two strong, spirited, and vibrant daughters.
Ciarra Chavarria is a passionate girl power and literacy advocate. She channels these passions through her Instagram feed @girlsreadtheworld where she aims to spread girl power, one book at a time. She is also a contributor to NBC’s Know Your Value and a member of the Children’s and Young Adult Books Committee of PEN America. By day, Ciarra is a nonprofit attorney in Manhattan. She lives with her husband and two fierce and fabulous daughters across the river in New Jersey.