Stories about AAPI solutionaries are as important as ever—Andrea Wang talks about why mentor texts matter and how she told her own family story in her newest picture book!
Meeg Pincus here, founder of Solutionary Stories. I couldn't be more thrilled to have our expert guest blogger Andrea Wang here with us today, to share about her new book and her thoughts on AAPI representation in kidlit nonfiction. Andrea's book, Watercress—and her experiences while promoting it—are so powerful and speak so clearly to the need for this conversation.
The topic of AAPI representation is very close to my heart, as my in-laws were incarcerated by the U.S. government just for being Japanese-American, and my husband and children are navigating what it means to be AAPI today. I'm so grateful to Andrea for talking about this and for writing her own story—and I can't tell you how much I love Watercress! (I've already told her I predict major awards—it's garnered seven starred reviews!!) Now here's Andrea...
Expert Guest Post by Andrea Wang
Hi Meeg! Thanks so much for having me on Solutionary Stories today! I’m excited to talk to you and your readers about Watercress, my third picture book, which came out on March 30, 2021. It’s a semi-autobiographical story about a young girl whose parents make her and her brother pick watercress from a drainage ditch by the side of the road. The girl is horribly embarrassed – as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, she already feels like an outsider in her rural Ohio town.
When the watercress is served at dinner that night, the girl refuses to eat it. Her mother then shares a story from her own childhood growing up in famine-stricken China that makes the girl realize her parents’ actions are rooted in a history that she knew nothing about. Her perspective on her parents and her own identity as a Chinese American changes, and she feels more connected to her heritage.
This book probably wouldn’t exist if not for another picture book about an immigrant Asian American family, A Different Pond by Bao Phi and Thi Bui. While I wrote the draft of Watercress years before A Different Pond was published, this book inspired me to take that draft out of the drawer and completely revise it.
I can’t tell you what it meant to me to see an Asian American family like mine represented in a picture book, from fishing for survival and not for fun right down to the bare light bulb and the father’s broken teeth. My father had terrible teeth, too, decayed from years of poor nutrition and lack of access to dental care. Many of the themes in A Different Pond resonated with me, and I decided to use it as a mentor text. Bao Phi’s spare, lyrical prose showed me not only how to drive home an emotional point, but also how to tackle complicated issues like microaggressions, poverty, and grief in an unflinching but non-didactic way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about AAPI representation in picture books, especially nonfiction picture books. I’ve been heartened to see more biographies of notable AAPI such as Wu Chien Shiung, Ruth Asawa, and Hazel Ying Lee. These books show young readers that AAPI can be physicists, artists, pilots – basically anything they want to be. We are constrained only by our imagination, and books like these can open a child’s imagination to infinite possibilities.
Wonderful, too, are the memoiristic picture books featuring AAPI. Memoirs are considered nonfiction, since they are based on facts as remembered by the author. Memoir-like picture books, however, may change some details in order to serve the story and its themes. They are probably best called fictional memoirs. Besides A Different Pond and Watercress, other memoiristic picture books featuring AAPI include Minh Lê and Dan Santat’s Drawn Together, Kao Kalia Yang and Khoa Le’s The Most Beautiful Thing, and Livia Blackburne and Julia Kuo’s I Dream of Popo.
There’s a common thread that runs through all these books – interaction with and advice from an elder, such as a parent or grandparent. I love this element; too often we forget that there are solutionaries in our midst, right in our own families. So much history isn’t being taught in schools, particularly the histories of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian Americans. It falls to the elders to teach us this history and the lessons that accompany it. How amazing it is that, through these picture books, we can learn from the elders of many different races and cultures.
While it’s heartening to see an increase in books by and about AAPI, it’s equally disheartening that it is accompanied by a rise in anti-AAPI racism and violence. Just today, a few minutes before I began giving my author presentation to an elementary school, a young boy began saying ugly things about Chinese people and the novel coronavirus. This incident made it all the clearer to me how desperately we need more books that humanize the AAPI and immigrant experiences, not just to counter racism but to show AAPI children that they are seen, they are understood, and they are loved.
Andrea Wang is the award-winning author of picture books The Nian Monster (Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature Honor), Magic Ramen (Freeman Book Award Honor), and Watercress (JLG Gold Standard Selection, seven starred reviews). The Many Meanings of Meilan, her debut middle grade novel, publishes in August 2021. Andrea’s work explores culture, creative thinking, and identity. She is also the author of seven non-fiction titles for the library and school market. Andrea holds an M.S. in Environmental Science and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing for Young People. She lives in Colorado with her family.