I was recently interviewed by an Asian online newspaper. As often happens, the young Taiwanese reporter asked me if I was a prolific reader growing up — and my answer was YES. I loved books. They were my life and lifeline and best friends. When I’m asked to list the books that influenced me the most — there is no hesitation. It’s easy and the list is long and varied. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, The Last Unicorn. All the Peanuts comics, All of Judy Blume. Read over and over. And over.
I related to these books. I connected to them. I saw part of myself in all the main characters. In Judy Blume’s Margaret, I saw a young, uncertain girl confused by who she was or was supposed to be and looking to a higher power for answers. In Lord of the Rings, I saw a small someone in an impossible fight against huge odds. And in Little Women, I saw a sister who didn’t quite fit in with her big feet and awkwardness, but finally finding her place as a writer. I saw myself. In all these books.
I never really got to see myself.
As often happens, I have been asked to discuss Asian American authors and characters and books that came before mine— and their influences on me.
This is less easy.
It took me a while to start this piece, because I realized that as a child, I didn’t have much experience reading Asian authors who came before me.
So I had to stop and think. When was the first time?
Of course, there was a wonderful start with the magical board books of Gyo Fugikawa. BABIES (Grosset & Dunlap, 1963) in particular I remember. How I loved that book. The Japanese-American author-illustrator was one of the first to consistently show diverse characters in all her work. She wrote & illustrated over fifty books for children, as well as illustrating classic such as A CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES by Robert Louis Stevenson. I treasure all my young memories of her works and many, many years later read them to my own children.
As I think about the books I read over the years, it really wasn’t until 1989, as a young adult working in Manhattan, I read Amy Tan’s JOY LUCK CLUB (1989, G. P. Putnam Son’s) and another Asian author came into my life. I know there are some stereotypes that people have problems with in this book, but I loved it. I loved it the way many Asian readers of my generation loved it. We were just was thrilled to see ourselves. I loved reading about the generation of women raised by immigrants. I loved the stories of young Asian-American women finding their way in a world that was a mix of their mothers’ culture and their own contemporary surroundings.
There would be another rather large space of time before Asian authors would come into my life again. When my daughter came to reading age, I was excited to discover a new generation of books that now included Asian American authors and characters.
First there was Grace Lin for her picture books. UGLY VEGETABLES and DIM SUM FOR EVERYONE! Along with my beloved Gyo Fugikawa board books, these became part of our daily readings. As my daughter grew, she had choices I only wished I could have found in my library. There was Linda Sue Park’s lyrical Newberry Medal winning A SINGLE SHARD (2001, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) during her early novel reading years. And Lisa Yee’s wonderful MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS (2003, Scholastic)— a character I adored. As my daughter devoured these books, I got a chance to see the reading world from her eyes and imagine what it would have meant to me to have these books at her age.
When my own debut middle grade novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE came out, I received letters that I could not help noticing came from Asian American girls – mentioning how they liked that there were two (two!) very different Asian characters in the story— instead of the typical single token friend.
And they asked if I would be writing books in which these were the main characters.
My next (currently untitled) middle grade novel features a Taiwanese girl who is creative and awkward and hopeful and so many things that I was at twelve. I imagine the girls who will see themselves in my books. I think about how these girls tell me they want to be writers too. I hope they will.
And I can’t help smiling as I write.
Kat Yeh grew up reading, doodling, and scribbling in Westtown, Pennsylvania. She worked as a copywriter for many years in advertising and sports marketing, while writing poems and children’s books in the wee hours of the night. She currently lived in Long Island where she spends any non-writing time being outside as much as possible and exploring all the bay and harbor beaches with her family. She has never cooked a meal without pretending to be the host of a TV cooking show. THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE is her debut middle grade novel.