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Picture Books to Counter Asian "Otherness"


Picture Books to Counter Asian "Otherness"

Debra Jacobs

Raising my Asian kids in a diverse community did not protect them from feelings of difference and “otherness,” or from landing on the receiving end of racial slurs - often, but not always, from kids who themselves belong to minority groups.

Classmates pulled the end of their eyes and yelled, “Ching-chong!” at them. A group of kids ran around the playground shouting “kon'nichiwa” every time they passed my daughter. As early as kindergarten, she came home angry and hurt because a little boy said, “You can’t sit here because you’re Chinese.”

As parents and teachers, we likely (hopefully) initiate many conversations with our young children about race and choose books with race in mind, making sure they include strong, positive African American or Hispanic characters.

But what about Asian or Asian American characters?

We can start when our children and students are young to include Asians in our conversations about race, to present our kids with many examples of Asian role models, and to make sure we read a variety of picture books that include Asian main characters and portray them in a positive light.

To get you started, here are a few recommendations:

Anything by Grace Lin

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Many of Lin’s books center around a loving Asian American family which, like her own, consists of Baba (Dad), Mama, Jie Jie (older sister), Mei Mei (little sister), and the main character, presumably Lin herself as a child. Dim Sum for Everyone and Kite Flying have few words and many beautiful illustrations in Lin’s unique style. Her book about Chinese New Year, Bringing in the New Year, follows the family as they clean the house, put up decorations, cook, and make other preparations for their new year celebration.

Round is a Mooncake, written by Roseanne Thong and illustrated by Grace Lin, is a rhyming book about shapes that uses Chinese objects as examples: “Square is a checkerboard in the park/Square is my name chop’s inky mark.”

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For older kids, Lin’s novel Year of the Dog, and its sequel, Year of the Rat, tell the story of a twelve year old girl finding her way in a mostly-white community. Funny and tender, these books are must-reads for preteens.

Mei Mei Loves the Morning by Margaret Holloway Tsubakiyama, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu

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This sweet story chronicles the morning routine of a young child and her grandfather, who eat breakfast together then head out on bicycle to meet friends in the park for Tai Chi and socializing. Showing the loving relationship between grandfather and granddaughter, it also introduces young readers to some of the foods and practices of people in China.

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

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This lovely story of identity and acceptance is for slightly older kids. A young girl leaves Korea to move to the United States. She finds that Americans have a difficult time pronouncing her name, and some kids on the school bus even make fun of it. She decides she wants an American name, and tells her classmates in her new school that she’ll choose one in a week. They begin putting names in a jar, offering her many suggestions. After receiving a letter from her beloved grandmother who stayed behind in Korea, she decides to keep her Korean name after all, and teaches her friends how to say it.