When I embarked on writing this post, I thought about sharing my favorite childhood books. Looking at the list, I was sad at first not to have a shining example that represented diversity. But when I took a closer look, I noticed that each book on my list does convey diversity, or a theme of feeling marginalized, something I experienced growing up. So I changed my focus from just listing my favorite books to examining why they were so special to me.
I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, at the tail end of the Appalachians. On one of the streets near my house, you could count ten churches, most of them Baptist, along a one-mile stretch. The Catholics were considered the liberals, Confederate flags were sold at Wal-Mart, and paddling (yes, hitting kids on their heinies with a paddle) was allowed in my middle school. When people learn where I grew up, they always ask, “There are Asians in Alabama?” To which I reply, “Yes. Four. My family.” I’d jokingly tell them about how the Asians lived in yellow trailers and how I walked barefoot until I was fourteen. And oddly enough, sometimes people would actually believe me.
Truth be told, Alabama was just home to me, and I didn’t know anything different. It’s also worth noting that Huntsville wasn’t backwoods at all. It was a medium-sized city that was fairly diverse, with a NASA research hub and an Army base that attracted people from all over the world. It had a bustling downtown area with a children’s bookstore, owned by the mother of fellow children’s book editor and Huntsville native Sarah Dotts Barley (HarperCollins). It was definitely not the scary den of racism most people associate with Alabama or the Deep South. In fact, many residents considered themselves downright cosmopolitan. But even in the relatively open community of Huntsville, prejudice often hovered beneath the surface.
While blatant racism did exist, I found that silent judgment, underlying ignorance, and a deep-rooted sense of “White Man’s Burden” were just as difficult to deal with and even tougher to identify. I learned that oppression can come from misguided intentions, from those who want to help but end up hurting instead—just as much as it can come from the more sinister, obvious sources we tend to think of first.
My first memory of this was in first grade, when we began our reading comprehension lessons. I eagerly looked forward to reading out loud. As an avid reader, I was excited to show off my skills, so I was floored when I found out that I was put in the remedial level. I couldn’t understand why. I later realized that the problem was my accent. My family spoke Mandarin at home, and, at my preschool, my teacher had been Indian. While I could understand the words I read, I wasn’t pronouncing them correctly. My teacher couldn’t quite grasp that though, and asked me to stay after class, making me read a paragraph over and over again, each time asking me if I understood what I was reading. I wished I could tell her that I did, but I couldn’t find the right words to say so. I began to hate school, reading, and anything else that made me feel stupid or different. So while my experience of subtle, well-intentioned prejudice was small peanuts compared to what others have faced, it did affect me greatly, which is why many of my favorite books featured diverse characters or characters that were criticized for being different.
Luckily, my parents loved going to the library and often used to children’s section as a babysitter while they wandered off to find the Chinese books. There were miniature dollhouses to stare at and a good collection of MAD magazines, but eventually, I wandered over to the books, where I picked up Sweet Valley Twins, and, as you can see in my previous post, I was hooked. Those books became pivotal in my journey towards book publishing, and I am thankful for them, even if I’ll never have Elizabeth Wakefield’s long blonde hair, blue eyes, and tiny mole on the left shoulder. (Okay, if I was stretching this, I could say that Elizabeth was also marginalized to a certain extent. I mean, Jessica was so popular. She was head of the Unicorns! Meanwhile, Elizabeth struggled under the weight of her intelligence. Right?)
Coming from Alabama became a badge of honor over the years, jokes aside. I had shoes, lived in a nice home, and people overall were pretty kind to me, but I do feel proud of growing up in a place where being different was noticed and pointed out to me. I still sometimes mispronounce words and mix up idioms. It took me forever to understand, “Six eggs or half a dozen.” (Wait, is that even the right saying?) And this is who I am… different, strange, and proud of it!
Without further adieu, here’s a list of some favorites, featuring the covers from my youth!
I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Sweet Valley Twins series. When I was a young girl in Alabama, I was put into a remedial reading group, which was pretty discouraging. I didn’t want to love reading, since I was told I wasn’t good at it. But then I discovered the Sweet Valley Twins, and oh boy did my life change. I couldn’t stop reading those, and when that series was exhausted, I bounced onto more. I challenged myself to read at higher levels, sometimes horrifying myself when I dipped into something too sophisticated for me. *spoiler alert!* When Ginger died in Black Beauty, so did my innocence!
By the end of high school, I had done poorly enough on the math portion of the SATs to know that my path lay in something English-related. But I was afraid to major in English—what was I going to be, a writer? I might as well have gone into art! I ended up majoring in advertising, after switching from psychology, which involved more math than I could stomach. However, upon graduation, I had a Say Anything moment, during which I realized I didn’t want to sell anything. So I went to grad school for a Masters in journalism. After internships at Chicago and Atlanta magazines, I was ready for the world, and I moved to New York City, the city of big dreams. My first job was at Starbucks!
I first read Kara Dalkey’s Little Sister in college. As I discussed in my last post, I grew up on a farm, in an area of rural western Illinois that had very little diversity. You could say that my ignorance on diversity issues was pretty high, notwithstanding my desire to be Japanese in the fourth grade. But in college, I had a lot of roommates from different cultures—over the years, roughly twenty women from a variety of other countries, including Laos, Korea, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Belgium, Japan, and the UK. (I feel like I’m forgetting someone.) I also roomed with several African American and Asian American women. (I had a LOT of roommates in college and grad school.) So their influence on me as friends started seeping into the books I looked for.
I had a habit of walking through the college bookstore and wandering through the YA section on my way to various classes or the library, and one day this book stood out to me. I am a fantasy buff, and up until that point I don’t know that I’d read any fantasy books set in a world based on an Asian culture rather than medieval European.
From the Goodreads description:
As a girl in the Japanese imperial court of the 1200s, Mitsuko is shielded from reality. But when her brother-in-law is murdered, and her family taken away by a warlord, she summons the courage to venture into the netherworld. The spirit of Mitsuko’s beloved sister, still devastated by the loss of her husband, wanders between Life and Death. In order to bring her sister back, Mitsuko, with the help of Goranu, a shape-shifter, must battle the merciless spirits—to the death.
Over on the Blue Rose Girls blog, Grace Lin has posted a very interesting and illuminating discussion about the book Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, illustrated by Blair Lent. This book was one of my favorites as a kid, because it was such fun to repeat the long, complicated name, and like many other children, I took pride in being able to say it really quickly. But I never saw it as part of my culture, and somehow I loved it despite knowing it wasn’t true—the sounds in Tikki Tikki Tembo’s name sounded nothing like the Chinese words I knew. As has been documented, the story may have originated from a Japanese folktale.
Grace reposted the piece “Rethinking Tikki Tikki Tembo” written by Irene Rideout, who outlines the reasons why the book is racist, but offers some productive solutions to keeping the book on shelves. Please do go read the post in its entirety, but I thought I’d highlight this paragraph here:
When I read online forums and discussions about the potentially offensive nature of Tikki Tikki Tembo, I am disappointed because so frequently the responses are dismissive. People say, “Oh, lighten up, it’s just a fun story for kids.” There is, of course, a difference between INTENT and IMPACT. I feel pretty confident in surmising that the author and illustrator of Tikki Tikki Tembo did not set out to offend anyone. In fact, the INTENT may even have been to honor the Chinese culture by sharing a charming story of their understanding of China. But the IMPACT is that an entire culture is misrepresented, and it is not unreasonable that people within the misrepresented culture might feel offended. It’s understandable that some people may have happy and fond childhood memories of this book, but their positive experiences with this book does not make other people’s negative experiences any less valid.
Personally, I think it’s a beautiful book, and I do have happy and fond childhood memories of reading it, although hindsight does make me cringe. I would encourage the publisher to reissue the book with a new foreword.
Many years ago, I had investigated the possibility of publishing a new version of the “folktale,” but because of the confusing origins of the story, discovered it would be tough to do. But perhaps it would be worth republishing a version as a Japanese folktale.
I grew up outside a small town in Illinois, on a small farm where we raised horses, pigs, cows, and rabbits (which were my 4-H project). We were pretty poor, but we also made do with a huge garden and clothes from yard sales and generally living off the land. I loved being involved in 4-H and FFA.
My first major in college was actually animal science pre-vet. I wanted to be an equine veterinarian.
What else would a girl who grew up on a horse and pig farm want to do? But I worked my way through college in publishing jobs, first because they were “easy” jobs—not as much physical labor as working on the dairy farm at school, and not as many allergic reactions, either—and then because my experience and skills kept leading me to more jobs in the same field. I typeset college textbooks in Unix/LaTeX, I reported and took pictures for a local newspaper, I edited phone books—yes, phone books—I transcribed 19th-century journals and proofread them.
Eventually, after changing my major and floundering with a human development and family studies major (I loved the child development classes, but didn’t like any of the expected career tracks from the major), I realized in the midst of an elective children’s literature class that I could combine my work skills and my interests. It only took me about six years of undergrad to figure out what I wanted to do.