In Which ALA Booklist Features A Chat With Me

I'm grateful to the American Library Association's Booklist and Dr. Amina Chaudhri for featuring me and my books in the January 2014 issue, with Common Core connections.

Do We Need "Bridge" Characters in Global Books for Kids?

When challenged by others as to why he focuses on stories about foreigners working in African countries, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof responds with the idea that "bridge" characters are needed to draw readers into a story.

The rules must be different in the world of global children's literature. Kristof makes two assumptions that don't work for me: (1) that readers won't be able to connect with stories unless you include an American, and (2) that his readers are American.

In three of my four books set overseas (Secret KeeperRickshaw Girl and Bamboo People), I didn't include "bridge" foreigners. Why? I trust young readers to connect with characters of a different culture. And since I grew up "between cultures," I never assume that my reader is staunchly in the majority culture. I like to ask how the story would be received by a child within that culture as well as by North American readers, and "outside saviors" seem to discourage rather than empower non-majority children.

Of course, this literary premise of needing "bridge" characters may be the reason why (a) global books don't sell well without a big gatekeeper push, and (b) I got rejected for years and years because I was submitting books without them.

What do you think? Does a "bridge" character in fiction draw you into a story? If books by authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Khaled Hosseini didn't have anything or anybody "American" in them, would they have won such wide cultural favor?

And who qualifies to be a bridge? In my novel Monsoon Summer, for example, Jazz is a biracial teen who goes back to India, and we see Pune through her eyes (thanks, John Bell, for reminding me of this.) With an Indian mother and a white American father, is she American enough to serve as a bridge character for American readers?

Help My Class Answer Four Questions From The Margins About Book Awards

Today in my "Race, Culture, and Power in Children's Stories" class at Saint Mary's College of California, we took a look at the winners of the 2014 ALA Youth Media Award. We began to ask four questions:
  1. Do any of the winning books or honorees feature a main character belonging to a group that has endured oppression in North America due to race or culture?
  2. Are any of the winning books or honorees set in a non-Western country?
  3. Are any of the main characters from an economically powerless family or subculture?
  4. Did any of the winning authors/illustrators grow up on the margins of power when it comes to race, culture, and/or class?
Setting aside the Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpré awards for a moment, can you help us answer these questions?

Note #1: In my author hat, I'm thrilled for all of the winners and so proud to see children's books making headlines. Congratulations, one and all! But in teacher mode, I am encouraging a focus on marginalized and powerless children and so invite you to join the discussion.

Note #2: If you're curious why some ethnic book awards like the American Indian Library Association's awards weren't on the ALA's official press release or on the main awards page, librarian Edith Campbell provides an explanation and a roundup of the winners.

Questions for Gene Luen Yang, Author of BOXERS AND SAINTS

Today I'm thrilled to host Gene Yang, one of the contributors to Open Mic Anthology (Candlewick), via skype in my Jan Term class at Saint Mary's College of California. My students have prepared questions to ask him, and here are a few:

  • Do you find that because of your background as a Chinese-American, you have integrated your own characteristics into some of the characters? Especially because of your ancestry, do you feel a connection with the characters you have created?
  • Have you ever been criticized for not having an authentic-enough experience to write your stories, considering you are Chinese-American? If yes, what is your response to critics?
  • What made you write about the Boxer Rebellion? What is more special about this event than others in Chinese history that made you spend precious time on this subject?
  • What kind of research did you have to do to make the story more authentic since you were originally born in California? Was your upbringing more American or Chinese and how did this contribute?
  • How does your faith play a role when writing your stories?

Can't wait to hear Gene's answers. If you haven't read BOXERS AND SAINTS, I couldn't put it down. Historical fiction in graphic novel format is going to be my preference from this day forward. Here's some of what I wrote Gene after I finished it: "I love how Vidiana was able to protect her enemy with the Lord’s prayer. In the middle of such chaos and despair, you showed—with finesse and restraint—how one girl’s faith can make a difference. Thank you."

    Race, Culture, and Power in Children's Stories

    Once again, my Jan Term course at Saint Mary's College of California called "Race, Culture, and Power in Children's Stories" is underway. Here's the first part of my syllabus:

    Why are children’s stories so powerful? Who has the right to tell stories about marginalized communities? This course will explore the question of authenticity in storytelling and unmask explicit and implicit messages about race, power, and culture communicated through books for young readers. A secondary course goal is to help students improve their analytical writing.
    • Part One: The Subversive Power of Children’s Stories
    • Part Two: Race in Children’s Stories
    • Part Three: Culture in Children’s Stories
    • Part Four: Power in Children’s Books
    Alison Lurie, author of Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature makes this argument about how children’s books can affect the common good:
    The great subversive works of children's literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten. 
    On the flip side, children’s literature has also been a key part of state propaganda used by totalitarian and oppressive governments to impose certain social and moral codes on child readers. As Bruno Bettelheim argued in The Uses of Enchantment, stories told to children powerfully shape their moral world. Children with a well-developed sense of justice and compassionate hearts widened by stories can significantly serve the common good. Storytelling is a powerful act, especially when it involves young hearts and minds. From Uncle Tom's Cabin to Harry Potter, books can either repudiate or encourage stereotypes and injustice.

    Students will explore and debate five questions:

    (1) BOOK COVERS: Should young adult and middle grade novels depict faces on covers?

    (2) BOOK AWARDS: Should ethnic book awards be based on the race/ethnicity of the author/illustrator?

    (3) BANNING: Should certain children’s books be banned in homes and classrooms because of racism or cultural stereotyping?

    (4) BOWDLERIZATION: Should we “bowdlerize” children’s classics that—seen with today’s eyes—are racist, or let them stand and be read as is?

    (5) AUTHENTICITY: Should a story be told only by a cultural “insider” to guarantee authenticity?

    This year I'm privileged to introduce my 23 students via Skype to Gene Yuen Yang, award-winning author of BOXERS AND SAINTS, Stacy L. Whitman, editor at TU Books, and Yolanda Leroy, editorial director of Charlesbridge.  Since the theme of Jan Term 2014 is "metamorphoses," students will be comparing the "hero's journeys" in two novels for middle grade or young adult readers, and analyze themes of race, culture, and power in each story.

    Students debated the question of book covers yesterday, and here are the presentations for your consideration.