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!