19 October 2013 @ 05:26 pm
Asian American characters in children's and young adult fiction?  
I've been wondering about the presence of Asian American characters in children's and young adult fiction, particularly books not written by Asian American authors. Are any of you regular readers of children's and young adult fiction? There's so much of it out there, so I'm by no means widely read, but the selected books I've read for various reasons unrelated to my interests in writing by Asian Americans have at times surprised me with Asian American characters. Despite the fact that the world of children's and young adult literature remains largely centered on white characters (see my friend's edited collection of essays, Diversity in Youth Literature, for some discussions of multicultural representation in the literature), it also seems that there is a concerted effort by some authors to write characters of various racial and ethnic backgrounds into their stories. Although this kind of writing might be superficially multicultural (in the way Bennetton advertisements have been analyzed as simply plopping people of different races onto the page or screen), it is also striking in the way that there are more Asian American characters than I would've expected, especially more complex characters than typical in lots of mainstream television shows and movies.

Here are just a few examples from books I've read recently:
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell flips back and forth between the perspectives of the two title characters. Park is a mixed-race Korean American teen. This book came on my radar because teachers and librarians at a local suburban school district chose it as a summer reading book, and some conservative parents reacted badly against it and had it pulled and the author disinvited from visiting. However, St. Paul Public Library has organized some events around the book and a visit from the author, and they have also chosen the book as their Read Brave book for 2014 (a single book about difficult issues teens face that the library chooses to encourage teens and adults to read and discuss over the course of the year).
  • Everlost by Neal Shusterman is the first book in the Skin Jackers trilogy about children who end up in limbo after sudden deaths. Again, of two main characters, Nick is a mixed-race Japanese American teen. Like in Park, Nick notes how important his Asian features and background are in the way people treat him. Both Rowell and Shusterman make a number of mentions of these characters' different eye shape (sometimes the mentions make me cringe), for example, but there is also a careful way that the authors work hard to show these teens as complex and fully-realized characters with an inner subjectivity.
  • Every Day by David Levithan considers the perspectives of a few teens in the aftermath of 9/11. One of the characters is a Korean American boy who slept through the horrific events of that morning and feels disconnected in many ways from the terror that others in the city felt who were awake and worried throughout that day.
  • The Geography Club by Brent Hartinger is one of the canonical books in LGBT YA fiction (David Levithan's work, especially Boy Meets Boy, is also part of that canon). Although the main character is a white, gay teenage boy, his good friend Min is a Chinese American, bisexual girl.
From these examples and a handful of others, I could generalize to say that there is some attention to populating supporting characters in YA fiction with non-white characters and even foregrounding one if there are two main characters. Some of the first books I read for YA readers were LGBT fiction, and I noticed the presence of Asian American secondary characters (best friends) in that subgenre, wondering if Asian American characters presented a particular purpose in that vein. Anyways, I'm just wondering if others have noticed these minor Asian American characters in other youth fiction.....
 
 
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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Secret Asian American Man: gee-rapp-uhsa_am on October 22nd, 2013 06:04 am (UTC)
i've been wrestling with a similar question concerning a paper i've been working on

can race ever simply be "incidental" in narrative? given that i'm inclined to say no, to what end does it serve to add "ethnic" and "racial" minorities to a story? is it a form of superficial multiculturalism?

i was wondering about the question of "modeling" when the asian american character is promoted to a more central position? does this encourage forms of identification among asian american readers or not? is this important? etc... finding studies about this has been hard actually...



Edited at 2013-10-22 06:05 am (UTC)
shadowy duck: pic#118449936pylduck on October 22nd, 2013 12:13 pm (UTC)
Coincidentally, I just came across the trailer for the upcoming film version of The Geography Club:



But yeah, I like that term "modeling." I agree that there is something more interesting going on, even if the "author's intention" is just to populate the cast of characters with a multicultural range of people. At the level of narrative, something happens with how readers (can... not always) perceive things. Some of the books I mentioned above are definitely not in the "incidental" camp, either, where the Asian American characters grapple substantively with their racialization, and in ways that are as interesting as the way Asian American writers depict Asian American characters sometimes (that is, they go beyond just throwing in some ethnic food here and there but really get at how the characters face microaggressions and deal with the difficulties of being Asian in a world that constantly sees them as exotic, foreign, and different).

Edited at 2013-10-22 12:16 pm (UTC)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )