Asian Americans in Literature for Children and Young Adults

By Yokota, Junko | Teacher Librarian, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Asian Americans in Literature for Children and Young Adults


Yokota, Junko, Teacher Librarian


LITTLE NOTO-SAN OF JAPAN ..."

Sound familiar? For decades, most of the stories focused on Asians and Asian Americans that were available to children and young adults in the United States probably started like this.

In essence, the mention of Asians in literature conjured up images from stories set "long ago and far away, in a land of exotic people . . .", mainly because there was virtually nothing in print that addressed Asian Americans of contemporary times. (Yokota, 1999a; Yokota, 1999b). However, in more recent years, the representation of Asians and Asian Americans in literature has grown substantially. Not only has the range of Asian peoples depicted and the range of genres widened, there has also been a significant move away from the "long ago and faraway" literature of folklore and historical fiction. Instead, there are books about people living in today's world from the various Asian countries. (Yokota El Bates, 2005).

WHAT DO THE STATISTICS SAY?

Since 1994, when the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison began keeping statistics, there has been an average of 65 books per year of the approximately 3000 children's books they review per year representing Asians or Asian Americans, http://www.education.wisc.edu/ccbc/books/pcstats.htm. This accounts for approximately 2% of books published, yet according to the 2006 United States Census (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000. html), Asian/Pacific Islanders comprise 4.6% of the population. It is significant to note that not all the published books focused on Asian/Pacific Islanders are created by authors/illustrators of that heritage. For example, in 2007, the CCBC documented that of the 68 books having significant Asian/Pacific American content, 56 had either an Asia author or illustrator. The CCBC also notes that, %. well over half of the books ... are formulaic books offering profiles of various countries around the world." Overall, such a pattern seems to indicate that only a handful of books published in a typical year are recommendable as fitting their criteria.

THE REPRESENTATION OF ASIANS AND ASIAN AMERICANS IN LITERATURE

There are numerous issues related to the concept of representation, but in this article the focus will be on [a] the range of representation, {b) the authenticity of representation, and (c) the need for a "balanced perspective" through a collection of books.

RANGE

One aspect of "representation" is knowledge of the range of countries that should be included when referring to "Asia" overall. References are often made to Asia as individual countries within a continent however, it is necessary to understand Asian countries are varied in geographical locations, cultural experiences, and histories--from Afghanistan to Yemen, from Hong Kong to Mongolia. In speaking of Asians and Asian Americans in children's literature, the countries that are represented are typically China, Japan, Korea, and India, with a few others included from time to time. These countries are most prominent in literature or news and are referred to most often. A scan of the current books in print would let you know that countries that are less represented in English language literature for children and young adults are often seen only in series books that focus on the entire world. This dilemma is not easily resolved as the books we would seek are not readily available now. However, there are alternate ways of gaining access to stories and information not readily found in the traditional printed book. One such alternative is the International Children's Digital Library, which will be discussed later.

AUTHENTICITY

Authenticity in representation is also of particular importance because the there is more of a variety of books available today than two decades ago. It is still essential for librarians to look for authentic representation. …

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