In college, San Francisco native Cindy Tong finally understood why she felt so close to Claudia Kishi, the famous Japanese-American character from the Baby-Sitters Club series. In a recent Zoom conversation with The Chronicle, Tong recalled “feeling embarrassed to be Asian because I rarely saw us portrayed in the media growing up.” For her then, Claudia Kishi was visible and validating.
Now, almost 30 years later, lack of representation is still an issue, as Tong discovered while researching picture books for his two sons, Connor, 6, and Owen, 4. . She was looking for books that could reflect them in everyday life. “I’m definitely seeing more books with Asians… which is great,” she observed. “But I also noticed that the books are mostly about culture and celebrations. … Do not mistake yourself. I mean, it’s a really important topic, but I also think Asian kids want to see themselves… being cool, ordinary kids going on an adventure.
It turns out that such “normalization,” as Tong puts it, is elusive. And so, she went tinkering to get the book she wanted. A fan of the Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown and Goosebumps series since childhood, she has written and self-published a mysterious picture book, “The Mystery of the Missing Dump Truck”. Synopsis: At day camp, the Hong brothers went in search of their favorite toy, now MIA. Suspects, clues and red herrings precede the discovery. But for Alina Shabelnyk’s colorful illustrations featuring two boys of Asian descent, Tong’s sweet mystery could easily fit on a shelf with the little old-fashioned guest books. (Tong’s book can be purchased from his website at www.bycindytong.com/shop.)
Tong thus offered her Chinese-American sons an experience she did not have so young: seeing herself in a book. But, as a mother, Tong also has another larger goal in mind. “I try to be more deliberate and more intentional in choosing books for them… so that they can see other people of different races and backgrounds in the books they read.” And why is that? “To instill empathy,” she says.
Reflecting a new seriousness of purpose, perhaps motivated by the racial calculation of recent years, picture book illustration continues to move away from the all-white cast of the past, attracting more characters of color instead. . It’s a welcome trend. And like children’s books in general, many new picture books focus on historical injustice, immigration, culture, and identity, highlighting previously marginalized perspectives on the American experience.
Tong takes the different but compatible path of accidental diversity where diversity is seen in the characters in the book but not at the heart of their story. Here are five picture books, by the way among the best of 2021, with various children involved in various activities.
Written by Matt Ringler; illustrated by Raúl III and Elaine Bay
(Little, Brown; 32 pages; $ 16.99; ages 4-8)
A toddler is heading for a tantrum. “There is only one way out of the daily disaster. It’s time to take a ride on the Strollercoaster! This is how this loud fuss begins about a smart dad and his cranky child. He ties her up and they set off, running through a hilly town and into exhaustion. Frantic cartoons extend the simple story line to accommodate sound effects, speech bubbles, and cultural details. The atmosphere is Latin. The story is universal. The book, a total success.
The lost package
Written by Richard Ho; illustrated by Jessica Lanan
(Roaring Brook Press; 40 pages; $ 18.99; ages 3-6)
A package mailed to New York quickly falls from a mail truck. Will he ever arrive in San Francisco? That’s the mystery of this dual-use picture book of how most packages get where they go. Meanwhile, on a socio-emotional level, that lost bundle translates into new friends. A messy view of the Golden Gate Bridge disappoints but doesn’t detract from a gripping tale of a special delivery that brings together children, seemingly both black and Asian American.
Bedtime, old house
Written by Janet Costa Bates; illustrated by AG Ford
(Candlewick; 32 pages; $ 16.99; ages 3-7)
On his first night’s sleep, Isaac, worried, declares: “I am not sleepy. So Grandpop walks him through a different bedtime routine: putting the house to bed. As hoped, the routine has a sedentary effect. Lifelike watercolors full of cozy details follow as the charming Black duo turn off the lights, lower the shades, and even read all the way home. Mysterious sounds abound, right up to the not-so-surprising surprise conclusion. Hint: role reversal.
Written by Jacqueline Davies; illustrated by Sonia Sánchez
(Katherine Tegen Books / HarperCollins; 32 pages; $ 17.99; ages 4 to 8)
Dive, dunk and splash. A great day at the community pool is interrupted by a distant rumble in this festive picture book. A little girl – could be of Asian descent – frolic above and below the water, before and after the thunder. The sparkling turquoise scenes, real and imaginary, are the perfect backdrops for her growing confidence and obvious pleasure.
Written and illustrated by Micha Archer
(Nancy Paulsen / Penguin Random House; 32 pages $ 17.99; ages 3 to 7)
“Is the sun the light bulb of the world? Is the fog covering the river? Do mountains have bones? A brother and sister reflect on a dozen of these metaphysical questions as they journey through beautiful collages of nature. (The family appears to be biracial, with the boy possibly posing as black and the girl possibly of Asian descent.) This magnificent picture book is then a discreet catalyst of curiosity that ignites the imagination and propels discovery.
Here are three other outstanding picture books – those that bring immigration, culture and identity to the fore by gracefully approaching the challenges Asians face when coming to America:
Eyes that speak to the stars
Written by Johanna Ho; illustrated by Dung Ho
(HarperCollins; 40 pages; $ 18.99; ages 4 to 8)
A Chinese-American boy sees how he is portrayed in a drawing of a classmate. “It didn’t look like me at all,” he said sadly to his father. Two straight lines for the eyes? His family then guides him beyond a deflating stereotype and towards a rich cultural and identity embrace. In this equally charming and lyrical companion to “Eyes That Kiss in the Corners”, it is a boy, this time, who ends up feeling empowered.
Written by Andrea Wang; illustrated by Jason Chin
(Neal Porter / Holiday House; 32 pages; $ 18.99; ages 4 to 8)
Sullen Ohio girl is ashamed to be ashamed of her immigrant family – “makeshift items and furniture in garbage piles by the side of the road and now dinner in a ditch.” His parents stopped the rusty Pontiac to pick first and then savor wild watercress, bittersweet like their memories of China, so far shared sparingly. With delicate details, art inspired by a Chinese painting style contributes to this tranquil autobiographical vignette, steeped in grief and exalted by personal growth.
Written by Muon Thị Van; illustrated by Victo Ngai
(Scholastic; 40 pages; $ 18.99; ages 4 to 8)
“The clock wished it had been slower. The path would have liked it to be shorter. The boat would have liked it to be bigger. In the dead of night, almost 40 years ago, a family left in tears a grandfather behind to flee Vietnam by sea. Destination Hong Kong then the United States. Only 75 words are needed to forcefully capture the perilous journey of these refugees, filled not only with “fear and loss, but also with hope”. Only 17 pages are needed to dramatically add visual context to this exquisite and touching memoir.