Wednesday, December 13, 2006

pin cushion

I admit that I am not the epitome of what people would call a strong personality. I'm not tough as nails, able to deflect the arrows of life. Instead, I am more like a pin cushion. Each jab seems to stick deep and I am extraordinarily sensitive. Which is why the way my career has shaped is somewhat unusual. With every Asian character book that I do, every talk I give, the more I am standing on a platform, expounding my opinions and beliefs about “multicultural” books. With my character traits, it would probably be best for me to behind the curtain, not in front.

So recently, reading this blog entry Read Roger: "But she wanted a tutu" made me feel a tad squirmish. I’ve probably been quoted over a dozen times saying that I wrote “Year of the Dog” because I wanted someone that looked like me to relate to; and here was an entire discussion talking about how needing to see one’s own race on a character in order to relate to it was “repugnant.” And not only is the adult agenda patronizing (a word that sends horror into a children’s book author), it is completely unnecessary. These books don’t matter, kids are just going to want their non-multicultural books, anyway.

Yet, just as I was digesting this conversation, Rosie O’Donnell did her “ching chong” Chinese on national TV. I’m offended, yet read threads of “lighten up,” and “stop whining about being teased on the playground," which make me wonder is I am being my too sensitive self again. But then I begin reading more and more responses saying things like, “go back to ching chong and eat a fortune cookie.”

And I realize this is why I am in front of the curtain. I can’t believe that the books that I make don’t matter. I don't think I am making books with an "adult agenda," I am making the books that I, myself, would have wanted as a child. But even if my adult agenda is clouding my judgement, if kids are truly racially blind when is comes to books— then it’s all the more important for them to read these multicultural books. Because hopefully these books will plant the seeds of racial sensitivity and understanding before they start noticing. Because the step between poor taste and overt racism is a small one, sometimes less than 100 pixels.

So I stay on course, smarting and burning when people want to “stick it” to me. But I can take it. I've got a lot of room left.


linbinwrites said...

"Because hopefully these books will plant the seeds of racial sensitivity and understanding before they start noticing."

Beautifully said, Grace.

cloudscome said...

I notice it is usually people in the majority/dominant culture that say minorities are too sensitive and skin color shouldn't matter. They are talking out of their ears.

You are on the right track, keep on truckin'.

Anonymous said...

Dear Grace, you are so right in your feelings about the importance and significance of your work. It is SO important to children who are not in the majority culture to see themselves depicted in the books they read. My children are both adopted from China and your books are their favorites (and mine). As their mother I am eternally grateful to you for what you are doing for them.

Anonymous said...

Our family appreciates your work as well as your advocacy on so many levels. The art and stories are fabulous on their own. And it is also wonderful for our children to have some books with Asian-American themes and to have an Asian-American author as a role model. I didn't realize how sparse these kinds of books were until I became a mom. My husband is Chinese but his family is very far away. So these books provide a wonderful way for the children (and me) to learn about his family and traditions at an early age. So not only are you helping to improve the multi-cultural environment for all children, you are helping to preserve my children's cultural identity. I take your books into my son's preschool to help the other children learn as well. We can't wait for your visit to Lansing in the spring!!!! Hugs, Melissa

Andrea said...


Good for you for braving the storm!

Btw, Rachna Gilmore has a great piece on a related topic on paper tigers this month:


Chasing Ray said...

I just got here from the latest Children's Carnival and I agree very much with what you are doing with your books, Grace. My childhood was different - I'm Caucasian so there were plenty of kids who looked like me in the books I read - but my parents were divorced in the 1970s which was not common and I could not find any books that had that same family situation. (Hard to believe now, isn't it?) I remember how thrilled I was to discover A Wrinkle in Time where the father was gone away and the mother raised the family alone - this was something I understood at least a bit (although my Daddy was still just a mile away).

Anyway, just because you want to read a book about a girl in a pink tutu sometimes doesn't mean that's all you want to read. It seems like it's always easy for the people from the majority who say that everyone else is happy. You have to be in the minority sometimes (culturally, ethically, socially) to have a clue what it's like and if you've never been there then you should just shut up. (not to be too harsh but.....:)

Colleen Mondor - Chasing Ray

Chasing Ray said...

Oops - major typo. I meant "ethnically" not "ethically".

I wonder what the ethical minority would be? Ha!

christinemm said...

Grace I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

A person never knows how many people they reach in a positive way, whether they are an author, artist, blogger, teacher, volunteer Scout Leader, or anything else that they do to come into contact with others, whether it is face-to-face or through published words or pictures. You'll never know how you have impacted others.

The sad part is we often hear the criticisms but less seldom, the good stuff. Hang in there.

I have to keep telling myself that in my various jobs and positions that I am doing some good to someone or else I'd just quit it all and give up and do something else which was more self-centered.

I have not read your books to my children or to myself yet but plan to now as you have me curious about exactly what you write about that some have issues with.

As a white American person who was a bookworm even as a child I'd like to say something that is rarely said in the media about identifying with others for their race. Growing up in America as a white girl there were issues with other things to identify with, such as the ethnic background of the 'white people'--in my parents generation there was much discrimination and stereotyping such as "the Germans", "the English", "the Italians" and also negative slurs for some of those. That went down 2 or 3 generations, it did not apply just to those who recently immigrated to America. Additionally there are the religion differences and those slurs, even within the Protestant religion the different denominations sometimes say something bad against the other. Add in also the income levels of people, whether they were a city person or country person, the intelligence level--the smart kids vs. the not so (school) smart kids, the cliques in school, what part of town one lived in, and it was a mess. So someone from the outside may assume that all whites have all other whites on an even playing field in all areas but it is not true. Divisions are everywhere, they were there when my grandparents were young, when my parents were young, and when I was young and I am sure they are still there today.

The characters in the books, although they are white, don't necessarily mean that all other whites 'relate' to them--but it seems that some minorities imagine that they do (Oprah, for one, makes this very clear).

In fact I could not relate to some children's book characters that were white as they were so different than I was.

Rinda said...

Possibly, just possibly, all of you above could learn a few things from a PBS special called "Oprah's Roots," coming up on my PBS station this Wednesday...and one of those things just might be, never, never, NEVER make assumptions and judgements about anybody based on their skin color. NEVER A person might be like Cameron Diaz, blonde, blue-eyed, as Caucasian looking as ever someone could be, but she has one parent who is African-American/Indian and one parent who is Caucasian.....and never, NEVER just assume that a person who looks Caucasian...does not know what it is like to grow up a racial minority.

Now, I'll make an assumption. I'd say, looking at the comments above, that very few or none of you ever grew up a minority in another culture completely different from your own, because, IF you had done so, you would know a profound truth.

Who you are and what you are and how you relate to others and the self respect that you have is, ultimately, as an adult, a matter of what is INSIDE of you--not the colors you were born with or the world into which you were born.

And it is from that place, deep inside of yourself, that a person needs to be creating books for children--because you have something special to say and because you need, badly, to say it.

I'd love to see how any one of you would survive, with all the emphasis you put on skin colors being important, getting dumped into a totally differnt culture from your own, frankly.

Rinda M. Byers

Grace Lin said...

Hi All,

Thanks for your comments--I didn't realize this post was was getting so widely read.

Rinda, I don't mean to single you out--but this is my blog and (correct me if I'm wrong, as things are easily misinterpreted) I don't understand the feeling of irritation/anger I sense from your comment.

I feel that how I have formed as an adult, good and bad, are a result of my childhood. A part of that childhood was a sense of alienation which was direct result of being the only Asian in a Caucasian community. As I've said in my writing and in speeches, it wasn't horrible, it wasn't traumatic and I'm not trying to whine. In fact, nowadays I treasure what once I separated me; and even appreciate the separation. But there were definite differences. And those differences were things I would have appreciated being addressed when I was a child. So maybe, those moments of feeling like an alien wouldn't have been so long or so painful. Those childhood memories are a part of what is "inside" of me and that is who or what drives me to make the books I do.

I understand what you are saying about not making assumptions about other people and their racial backgrounds. If you read my books, I hope you would realize that they are about showing commonalities amongst differences, about acknowledging and appreciating surface differences yet realizing that underneath things are the same.