By Leslie Tabor
Over the past year, there has been a movement brewing in children's books to encourage the growth of literature that features diverse characters that readers can relate to. "We Need Diverse Books" has its own hashtag, #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and an increasingly devoted fan base. In honor of Asian-Pacific Heritage month, the New York Public Library is celebrating those books that support and inspire Asian readers.
As an adopted Korean girl raised in Oklahoma by a white family, it was hard to find Asian voices anywhere while I was growing up. I wonder if anyone was as taken as I was with the sight of Connie Chung on the nightly news, and don't even get me started on how much I loved figure skating! Although, getting called Kristi Yamaguchi or Midori Ito by classmates over and over again got old after a while, especially since they are Japanese!
But news anchors and Olympians aside, books and movies were a way for my family and me to explore my Korean heritage and Asian culture, in general, while I was growing up. At school book fairs and libraries, I picked up any book that featured an Asian character. I loved Claudia Kishi and Mimi in The Baby-Sitter's Club. I've watched The Girl Who Spelled Freedom more times than I can count. (I also believe that film is solely responsible for my 4th grade spelling bee championship.) My sister, who is also an adopted Korean, and I were obsessed with Disney's Mulan when it came out and my family and I watched Margaret Cho's sitcom All-American Girl for the five minutes it was on TV.
As a librarian at NYPL, I'm thrilled I get the opportunity to talk with my patrons and share the books that explore the diversity of Asian influence. As a society, we seem to be growing beyond broad cultural strokes, and have started to really listen to the unique experiences Asians have in America. Below are just a few books I recommend to celebrate Asian-Pacific Heritage Month:
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo -- The hot book right now for getting your home space in order. Kondo encourages minimalism, zen and joy in your everyday life; things Japanese culture has always embraced.
Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang -- I love Eddie Huang; He's insane in the best way. This rollicking book is the basis for his current ABC comedy of the same name and it's a hilarious, profane and thoughtful look at Asian-American culture and family.
I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight by Margaret Cho -- Without Cho's pioneering work, Asians might still be fighting to be noticed in comedy and entertainment. Cho is a fierce comedian, feminist and performer, whose candid voice about her own struggles with identity and place shouldn't be missed. I saw her live in Wichita as a teen and it was hilarious and electrifying. And I promise I'm not just recommending her because I get mistaken for her all the time (at least she's Korean, too)!
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang -- An essential graphic novel, this book shared the ABC experience in a new way and garnered critical praise along the way, including the 2007 Michael L. Printz award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature from the American Library Association.
Echoes of the White Giraffe by Sook Nyul Choi -- An oldie but goodie. I read this as a kid when I was coming to terms with being an adopted Korean in a white American family. It's not specifically about adoption, but I was so hungry for insight into Asian culture that I was grateful to have this book.
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua -- This book garnered intense attention from both supporters and critics. Did Chua further stereotypes or bring understanding to the biological nature of Asian mothers? The world may never know, but I think it's worth a read for any mother, daughter or perfectionist.