I met author Emily Jiang very briefly at the Nebula Awards and again at the Locus Holiday Party. That sentence made it sound as though my life is far more glittering than it actually is. Anyway, emily and I had a great time at the party talking about how parties are terrifying and singing scraps of Sondheim to a long suffering Setsu Uzme and long story short Emily agreed to do an interview for us here at Geek Girl. Little did I know that it would include haiku!
I’ll be doing several posts this month on the importance of diversity in children’s literature and YA this month. Emily’s picture book is gorgeous to read and to look at, thanks to illustrations by April Chu (all images below are by April). It’s a series of poems and prose about Chinese musical instruments.
What did you do to prepare for this book?
Before I decided to write the book, I was only familiar with the erhu and the guzheng, so I had to research quite a bit. I found books written in English about Chinese Music and read them cover to cover and I scoured the internet for sound clips and Youtube videos to hear what they sounded like. It was great fun. I love learning about little-known cultures and finding little-known facts. Sometimes those facts are not relevant, but often I’ll stumble upon a fact that shines like a gem.
Writing is spinning
stories from all the juicy gems
gathered from research.
What was your process like when working with an illustrator?
Unlike comic book writers, picture book authors working with traditional publishers are not supposed to suggest artwork to their books’ illustrators. All I asked was that the children be ethnically diverse and not all Asian.
Here’s an example of April Chu’s fabulous artwork illustrating one of my poems. It’s why I am so grateful I did not dictate the images in my head while I was writing my picture book:
A picture book is
a true collaboration
of words and pictures.
You can read more about how Chu’s illustrations complement the story at My Favorite Bit
Why was this book important to you?
I think of myself primarily as a fiction writer, more specifically as a novelist, so it’s a bit of a surprise to me that my first book was a picture book. But I now I absolutely love it! I am passionate about music and I am passionate about understanding non-American cultures, especially that of my ancestors.
Someday I will write
stories of my ancestors,
stone names worn away.
One thing that I’ve noticed is that the illustrations show children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds playing the instruments. Why did you choose to have so much diversity in our book, and why should we care about diverse representation in children’s literature?
These questions are best answered in this guest blog post at diversify (which also includes samples of April’s gorgeous art):
Highlighting some key facts from my blog post to directly answer your question:
In this article Lee & Low also used statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and made this chart that shows that while the population of people of color in the United States has risen to 37% as of 2012, the number of new traditionally published children’s books by and/or about people of color has stagnated at roughly 10% over the past eighteen years. The US census projects that by 2060, the percentage of “minority” populations will be 57% of the United States. “The US is projected to become a majority-“minority” nation in 2043.” Clearly the children’s book publishing industry in the US is not keeping up with the changing population of their young American readership.
Here’s another more immediate statistic. My acquiring editor Renee Ting wrote an article “Writing Race: Reflecting the Modern World” that stated another fact from U.S. Census Bureau: “as of July, 2011, white babies no longer comprise of the majority of births in the United States.” Therefore, right now as of 2014, our American-born three-year old children are more diverse than ever. Hopefully their parents are already reading books to them, and in a few more years, these children, our children, will start reading books on their own. Considering the needs of the newest generation of Americans and assuming the American publishing statistics remain somewhat similar to those quoted by Lee & Low in 2013 (which is highly possible since traditional publishing typically takes an average of two years to get an accepted manuscript turned into a book that can be purchased on the book shelf), the issues are pretty obvious:
We need more books where an American non-white child is the protagonist, not the sidekick. We need more books where children from underrepresented populations can see themselves as the center of the story.
Shouldn’t the American children depicted in American books reflect the growing racial diversity of the United States?
This is the epiphany I had almost two years ago, right after I had completed the revision of my manuscript that my editor was going to send to my illustrator. So I asked my editor if it would be okay to ask the illustrator to make the kids ethnically diverse with an emphasis on Asian children. Luckily, I had made a conscious choice before writing the poems to focus on the child’s relationship to music rather than to ethnic identity. This gave the illustrator even more freedom to choose each child’s appearance according to race, age, and gender.
***My book is an American book written by an American author and illustrated by an American artist and published by an American publisher. So the children in our book should reflect America.***
…it boils down to this simple statement:
Everyone can enjoy my book about Chinese music, regardless of cultural background and/or ethnicity, because Chinese music can be enjoyed by everyone.
We look so diverse
on the outside, but inside
we are all human.
(Note the passage surrounded by *** is not in my original article)