‘They need to see themselves’: NC libraries push for AAPI representation in kids books

·7 min read

When Hongbin Gu’s kids read former President Barack Obama’s memoir in middle school, they felt inspired. But they also were left wondering: “Why are there no Asian stories to inspire them?”

“I feel a big loss,” said Gu, a Chapel Hill town councilwoman and board member of the Chinese American Friendship Association of North Carolina. “It’s very important to make them feel like Asian Americans are relevant in a larger dialogue, and in the struggle of the whole country that we are a part of.”

Gu is now one of many in the community helping the Chapel Hill Public Library expand the collection of Asian American and Pacific Islander stories — one part of the library’s larger efforts to bring in more diverse authors and to highlight AAPI culture throughout a community where Asian Americans make up the largest non-white racial group.

And in Zebulon, in the eastern part of Wake County, an elementary school librarian has raised hundreds of dollars towards a similar goal.

“I want my students to be able to see themselves,” said Erica Flory, a librarian at Zebulon Magnet Elementary School. “And I want them to see that there are other people that might look different and have different cultures, and that’s okay. It’s perfectly normal.”

It’s an ambitious task for educators and librarians, as there are limited options for them to choose from. Only a small fraction of characters in children’s literature are people of color, said Monisha Bajaj, a professor of international and multicultural education at the University of San Francisco.

But she added that a push for broader representation in public libraries and schools can help build empathy among children, and combat the idea of Asian Americans as “perpetual foreigners.”

“There’s a long history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders being part of the American story,” Bajaj said. “We just don’t know these stories.”

Lifting unheard voices

Flory describes herself as “a fan-girl of authors and illustrators.”

“A lot of them are Asian American or Pacific Islander,” she said. “And I really feel like their voices are not being heard.”

Since March, Flory has been raising money through the teacher fundraising site DonorsChoose to expand the school’s collection of books written by AAPI authors.

Flory said the school’s stock of AAPI books is small, even after she was able to bring in a new collection of picture books for AAPI Heritage Month in May. Her current fundraiser focuses on chapter books for second- through fifth-grade students.

It’s important for students to get that exposure at school, Flory said, because their families might not have been exposed to other cultures.

“If you don’t know about it, you don’t know that you don’t know about it,” she said.

Growing up, Flory said she had Black friends who never saw themselves represented in books until they had children of their own.

“That shouldn’t be an experience for any child,” she said. “They need to see themselves. No matter how young they are, no matter where in the world they live, they need to see themselves in books.”

Windows, mirrors and prisms

Bajaj said there’s a longstanding metaphor in the field of children’s literature that looks at stories as both “windows” and “mirrors.”

As windows, stories offer young kids a look at cultures or experiences that are different from their own.

“Exposing at the youngest of ages to a story that may be about a different kind of a food, or a different kind of reality,” Bajaj explained. “Or it could even just be an Asian American or Pacific Islander character doing something that you also do, and creating a sort of shared humanity through that.”

And as mirrors, Bajaj added, the stories allow kids to see themselves represented in what they consume.

“If there’s a children’s book at my library where I can see myself and my community and people who have names like mine reflected, it can be a really empowering process for students to feel connected to the larger American story,” she said.

But Bajaj and her co-researchers have developed a third term, “prisms,” to describe how books can help amplify discussions of injustice or discrimination.

She said the recent uptick in reports of violence against Asian Americans across the country is “an extension of decades and centuries old anti-Asian sentiment,” pointing to the Chinese Exclusion Act and other discriminatory immigration policies.

Between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021, the group Stop AAPI Hate received 3,795 reports of discrimination against Asian Americans.

And while Bajaj said it is difficult to measure what kind of an impact books can have, she added they may be one way of working to combat the harmful rhetoric that has been used against Asian Americans.

“A lot of this violence is directed with the trope of the perpetual foreigner,” she said. “Early exposure to these stories, to these realities, to the shared humanity across groups, I do think can develop a sense of empathy, a sense of inclusion and a broader picture.”

Diverse books for a diverse community

In Chapel Hill, the broader push for more AAPI representation and solidarity began during the pandemic, Gu said. Amid the upsurge of violence against Asian Americans in the spring, she said rallies drew diverse support from all over the Chapel Hill community.

In the aftermath, she went to local schools to see how they could incorporate historic injustices against AAPI communities — like Japanese internment camps during World War II, or the more recent Muslim travel ban — into the classroom narrative.

Meanwhile, the Friends of the Chapel Hill Public Library, a volunteer organization dedicated to supporting the library, started a campaign in May, aiming to raise $15,000 for a more diverse collection.

Susan Brown, the director of the Chapel Hill Public Library, said the campaign comes after a staff diversity audit.

“Our collections were not as diverse as they could or should be,” Brown said. “We know that Chapel Hill is increasingly a diverse community. Certainly, we’re a university town, but we have a lot of immigrant and refugee populations.”

The Diverse Books for a Diverse Community campaign has raised over $9,275 since then, money that will be put towards books written by Black, Latino, Asian American and LGBTQ authors, books written in other languages and stories that feature children with disabilities.

She added the campaign will allow the library to purchase books in other languages “on a scale we couldn’t do before.”

In an effort to support the campaign, the Chinese School at Chapel Hill and the LIGHTUP team raised a gift of $1,000.

Gu, a member of the school’s board of directors, said getting involved in the library’s campaign was a natural part of their ongoing community outreach efforts.

Gu says the current moment is a “moment of awakening” for Asian Americans, and one that is related to the “bigger struggle of racial equity.” Asian Americans can learn lessons from African American history and the ongoing inequities Black communities face, Gu said.

“We are an integral part of this community, of this country,” she said. “And we need people from Asian American communities to be represented in all of this dialogue, in all of these artistic representations, of course in our government as well, and through the books that people read and the stories that they talk about.

“All of these things are related, and these are very key components in the fight against the hate towards Asian Americans,” Gu said. “It’s not only a law enforcement issue, it is a larger societal issue that we have to tackle in order to make sure that everyone feels they belong.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting