Once upon a time, I was a little girl.

I knew a few things about life back then. They were:

  • When you’re a girl, there is nothing worse than being ugly. Therefore, it’s a top proirity to be pretty.
  • You should always be yourself, unless yourself doesn’t fit in, in which case you should stuff yourself down and reshape yourself to conform so you won’t be alone.
  • You should be ashamed about what makes you different, because it’s the root cause of all your problems.

I now know that none of these are true. But when I was eight, nine, ten, twelve, or fifteen, they were. And for many children today, they still are.

As a mestiza in a non-diverse southern community, I had the weighty sense that I was not-pretty, and my ethnic background didn’t allow me to conform. So I stuffed it down and was ashamed of it. My eyes, my complexion, my hair color, my nose, my stubby eyelashes — they were all vile to me. I believed, like many girls before me, that being pretty meant blonde hair and blue eyes. I wanted to be like Dionna, a girl who went to my school. Her hair sat in soft blonde ringlets. She always wore fashionable headbands and cute dresses. Her eyes were round and blue. Everyone wanted to be around her. Even her name was beautifully sophisticated. Dionna.

Meanwhile, my eyes slanted just enough to be traitorous. They were dark. And I had no adorable headbands or cute dresses. Also, my hair was coarse.

I used to think: If I have to be Asian, why can’t I at least have Chinese hair?

It’s embarrassing to admit that. But it’s true.


I read a lot. Judy Blume spoke directly to me. Her books were my thoughts come to life. But there were missing pieces. Her characters were mostly white middle-class Yankees. I was a whitish Asian in the working class who was being raised in the deep South, even though neither of my parents were Southerners.

So what was I?


A co-worker recommended a book to me many years ago. It was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. It’s unfortunate that Toni Morrison is the only African American author that many White people can name, but it’s fortunate that I was given the book.

On the surface, I had little in common with Pecola. She was a Black girl growing up in Ohio after the Great Depression. She suffered from horrific abuse. Her family struggled to get by in a society where Whiteness was goodness. My family’s lack of money was an inconvenience. Pecola’s poverty was oppressive. Pecola was told, again and again, that she was ugly. This fueled her one greatest wish: To have blue eyes.

I thought about the times I stared at my own eyes in the mirror and wished they would turn blue. The nights I went to sleep and prayed that I would wake up looking “more American.” How I took it as a compliment when someone said, “Oh, I just thought you were White.”

As readers, we relate to most characters on an empathic level. But I related to Pecola in a more meaningful way. I was a whitish-Asianish girl with food on the table and she was a poor Black girl in the years after the Great Depression, but she managed to reach across the divide of time, fiction, race, age, economics, and social status to say: I know we are very different, but in some ways, we are the same.

Today is Multicultural Children’s Book Day. Make sure you celebrate it. Remember why #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

Celebrating 75 Years of Little Golden Books

This is a year of great celebration! It’s the 75th anniversary of Little Golden Books.

When I flip through the pages of a Little Golden Book, I travel back to a time when the Poky Little Puppy nosed through my childhood bedroom, the Fuzzy Duckling swam across my bookshelf, and Scuffy the Tugboat tried with all his might to make it across my carpet.

But none was more beloved than Grover. Despite his brick wall and ropes, I always made it to the end of the book, only to discover that the titular “Monster” was none other than lovable Grover himself.

Take time today to pay homage to a literary staple. I know I will.

Do You Love Louisa May Alcott because of Little Women? I Don’t.

Today is Louisa May Alcott’s birthday. When we think of LMA, we think of Little Women. Well, that’s what you think about, anyway. I think of A Long Fatal Love Chase. Here’s a confession:

I have never read Little Women.

I saw the Winona Ryder movie and enjoyed it. I had about 500 panic attacks when whatsherface threw Jo’s manuscript into the fire. But I’ve never enjoyed the book. I’ve started it, stopped it, started it, stopped it, and finally admitted to myself that I just didn’t want to read it.

Then I discovered A Long Fatal Love Chase, the book she wrote two years before Little Women was released. I love Gothic fiction, and this is Gothic suspense in all its glory. Alcott tried to get the book published, but it was rejected again and again for its sensationalism. It wasn’t published until 1995, more than 100  years after Alcott’s death.

When you move in a literary world, it’s tough to admit that you’ve never read a classic staple of American literature like Little Women. But if there’s something to be taken away from my adversity to Little Women and my love for A Long Fatal Love Chase, it’s this:

  • You don’t have to like a book just because a lot of people say you’re supposed to.
  • Writers have many faces. They can write a sisterly coming of age novel, and they can also write books that begin with:

“I shall do something desperate if this life is not changed soon … I often feel as if I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.” … The girl glanced despairingly about the dreary room like a caged creature on the point of breaking loose. Books lined the walls, loaded the tables and lay piled about the weird, withered old man who was her sole companion.

Happy birthday, Louisa May!

When Bullies Win

I write a lot about bullies. And unfortunately, there are times when bullies win. It’s unfair. It’s tragic. But it’s true. As we all know, life isn’t fair. As parents and educators, it’s something we have to teach our children. But how do we teach this without compromising their personal optimism and enthusiasm for the future? Saying “life isn’t fair” isn’t enough.

My daughter is in college now, but once upon a time she was a young bullied girl. In her case, the bullies didn’t win. They weren’t picked as the most popular kids in school. They didn’t win student council president. They didn’t load up on academic trophies. (My kid did, though. Just sayin.) But if they had, and she was forced to witness her tormentors getting undeserved love and glory, I imagine I’d say something like this:

Life isn’t always fair, which is why it’s important to do whatever you can to make it that way. Here’s the catch, though. You won’t win. It’s weird to have a grown-up say that, isn’t it? We’re supposed to be all positive and stuff, like, ‘You can be anything you want to be!’ And that’s true. But when it comes to life and fairness, it will never balance out. That’s not cynicism. It’s the truth. We are human beings. And human beings are deeply flawed. The more human beings you get involved in something, the more flawed and unjust that something will become. But you can’t weed out the baddies and ship them off to Australia. (Australia would get really mad at you). And you don’t want to anyway, because life would be boring if we were all the same, right? So, know this: Life is sometimes fair. And sometimes it isn’t. And it will always be that way.

Sometimes your bully gets a new car for Christmas and you have to drive your dad’s 1999 Toyota Corolla. Sometimes your bully is elected student class president. Sometimes fifteen people ask your bully to prom. Sometimes your bully calls you a racial slur and gets carried off the football field on everyone’s shoulders two hours later. Sometimes your bully wins.

I know what you’re thinking. If the bully gets the new car and the dates and the student council presidency and gets carried off the field, what’s the point of being a nice person? I may as well just be a bully too. Or stop caring.

What’s the point?

Virgil, one of the characters in Hello, Universe, asks the same question. And Ruby, his wise and magical advisor, says: Of all the questions you ever ask, never ask what’s the point?

Because the point is this:

  • When your bully is carried off the football field, you can look at the student next to you and hold hands. You can say, “This sucks, doesn’t it? But it could be worse. We could be one of the people cheering. I would rather recognize injustice and have my feet on the grass.” That’s called integrity.
  • When you lose your student coucil election to your bully, you might wonder what you did wrong. Instead, ask: What will I do next?
  • When your bully is surrounded by admirers, it’s reasonable to look in the mirror and say: I’ve been a nice and decent person. Where are my admirers? But remember this: Some people need admirers to lift them up because they can’t stand on their own two legs. It’s better to have one beautiful person in your corner than 100 admirers in your audience. Especially if that beautiful person is you.

Embrace humility, because empathy doesn’t exist without it. Find your voice and speak against injustice. Don’t stand by, stand up. Just because life isn’t fair doesn’t mean you can’t be.

Settle down and make yourself uncomfortable

 

It’s October 31, which means you’re primed for all things spooky, right?

My recommendation is We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the gothic novel by Shirley Jackson.

This is one of my favorite books. As with all well-written gothic novels, its atmosphere is palpable.

Our narrator is Mary Katherine Blackwood (a.k.a. “Merricat”), a young woman who lives with her reclusive sister and crazy uncle in a town that eyes them with suspicion. The Blackwoods have fallen from grace, though you’re not sure how — not at first, anyway. All you know is that everyone else in the family is dead and something is “off” with the Blackwood survivors.

Are you in the mood to creep yourself out? Settle down with this book and make yourself painfully uncomfortable.

It Isn’t Just a Library — It’s a Space Ship

 

My purse is an abyss of mysterious dimensions. Sixty percent of the time, I can’t find my debit card. Seventy percent of the time, I can’t find my inhaler. Eighty percent of the time, I’m digging for wayward quarters to put in the parking meters.

But I can always find my library card. It’s tucked in a special place in my wallet. Lose the library card? For shame.

September is Library Card Sign-Up Month.

I have my card. Do you?

When Blackbird Fly came out in 2015, people asked me what it was like to see it in bookstores. It must be so cool!, they’d say. They’d send me pictures of it sitting pretty on shelves in Barnes & Noble. And it was pretty rad, I have to admit. But nothing compared to seeing my book in a library. The first time I saw my book on a library shelf, with its efficient classification sticker and its smooth library wrapper, I thought: THIS IS SURREAL. Because libraries are where it’s at, even in the age of Google. Especially in the age of Google. For me, nothing compares to walking into a library.

I use my card often. I sign-on to the library system’s online catalog and request books like a madwoman. At this moment I have two books on request at my local branch (which is two blocks from my apartment, by the way): Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm and The Best Man by Richard Peck. The book I’m reading now — The Outside Lands by Hannah Kohler — came from my local library.

Why the library?

Perhaps Isaac Asimov said it best.

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On Favorites: Choosing One and Being One

I’ve always had a favorite.

When I was a kid, I had a favorite stuffed animal (John-John), favorite food (macaroni and cheese), favorite cereal (Cookie Crisp), favorite show (She-Ra), favorite actor (Michael J. Fox), favorite color (red).

Judy Blume was my favorite author. Halfway Down Paddy Lane was my favorite book.

I took all these favorites quite seriously. When you’re young, favorites are one way you tell the world about yourself.

Every now and then I get a wondrous email from a reader that says:

You’re my favorite author.

It’s the most surreal phrase in the universe.

It’s impossible to describe how it feels.

So I won’t.

 

A Word About Wordless Picture Books

 

There are many reasons to love, celebrate, and appreciate picture books. Anyone who knows anything about children’s publishing will tell you that they are incredibly difficult to write, so when you find the perfect relationship between words and images, you’ve stumbled upon something very special indeed.

But what of the picture book that has no words?

In my opinion, these are uniquely extraordinary. When there are no words, readers are tasked with imagining stories on their own. And what better way to become part of a story than to write it yourself?

The Conductor by Laëtitia Devernay is a recent favorite. I also loved The Only Child by Guojing, which is more of a graphic novel than a picture book, but is still completely wordless with astonishing illustrations. And you can’t have a blog post about wordless picture books without a nod to The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney, which won the Caldecott Medal.

But that’s enough talk. Let’s listen.

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Related: Top 10 Wordless Picture Books