Meet Four Women of Color Who Are Revolutionizing Books for Young Readers
Mitali Perkins, Crystal Chan, Jennifer Zeynab Joukhada, and Cindy Pon bring much-needed perspectives to young people’s literature
Studying the background of writers who write groundbreaking literature is always a fascinating undertaking. What makes underrepresented writers successful? What drives them to persist and ignore the inevitable early rejections, and allows them to tap into new territory and convince new readers to join them?
Full disclosure: when I began this article, I intended to include male writers. But none responded. Each woman, however, responded enthusiastically, despite busy schedules. So this collection of interviews evolved on its own into a concentration of female writers. In any case, I found this to be an empowering experience, as each writer has something different and inspirational to offer—but they also have a lot in common.
What makes underrepresented writers successful? What drives them to persist and ignore the inevitable early rejections, and allows them to tap into new territory and convince new readers to join them?
For instance, each writer is a person of color (POC), either an immigrant or the daughter of an immigrant, and each writer grew up reading books featuring white heroes and heroines. They all read the same classics — A Little Princess, Little Women, The Secret Garden — and a large amount of science fiction and fantasy authors — C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, Madeleine L’engle. For each woman, books functioned as a safety net throughout the difficult years negotiating new cultures, peer groups, and social structures at school and in the neighborhood. They unanimously shared a feeling of displacement in that not one of them had a book to read that mirrored her own experience.
I asked these writers, who are among the first to portray POCs in high profile or bestselling books, about their novels, and about what drove them to keep submitting till they achieved acceptance. Their topics are timely, often developed before the news caught up to their imagination. And in this time of resistance to immigration, think of the loss if we did not have these writers’ books to educate us. Together, the novels comprise a strong list of worthy titles for both young readers and adults. If empathy is taught through reading, the hope is that more will read these necessary stories, gift them to children, donate them to libraries, assign them to students. These voices need to be heard, now more than ever.
Mitali Perkins has an incredibly diverse background. Born in Calcutta, India, she later lived in Ghana, Cameroon, London, New York, and Mexico before settling in California. This award-winning author has written many novels for young readers that reflect her multicultural experiences and feature marginal characters. Her first novel, Rickshaw Girl (chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the top 100 books for children in the past 100 years), broke both gender and culture barriers.
Tara Lynn Masih: Congratulations on the National Book Award nomination (You Bring the Distant Near, 2017). While you’re considered one of our foremost YA authors, I want you to tell me about the journey to publish your first novel, Rickshaw Girl, which came out in 2007. Did you know it would have such a great reception? I see it’s being made into a film directed by Amitabh Chowdhury. That shows how much your character has withstood the test of time. I also love Bamboo People (2010), and how you bring attention to a violent war between two cultures on the border of Burma and Thailand and reveal the one connection all soldiers have. How would you say these two books, or all your books for that matter, tie together?
Mitali Perkins: Half of my books explore the immigrant, or “hyphenated” life, and the other half are fully set overseas with no American characters. Bamboo People and Rickshaw Girl fit in the latter category and tie together in their exploration of justice and poverty.
Rickshaw Girl was rejected by many publishers before it found a home. Some editors thought kids might not want to travel so far without a “bridge” American character. Others felt it wouldn’t find a market here in the States because it was for younger readers but dealt with “big issues” like microcredit for the empowerment of girls. I kept sending it out because I love my little Naima so much and I wanted readers to meet her, too. She is an amalgamation of my grandmothers who both grew up in Bengali villages and the modern-day girls I met while I lived in Bangladesh. Finally, Charlesbridge took a risk and published it.
The book didn’t sell well at first, but bit by bit, Naima found her way to her readers. It’s been translated into eight languages, adapted into a stage play, and will be released as a film in 2019. It’s become my bestselling book. I hear from second graders who are excited to raise money and donate to microcredit nonprofits like Kiva or World Vision.
The moral of the story for me is that we adults continually underestimate what kids care about and how they comprehend “big issues.”
We adults continually underestimate what kids care about and how they comprehend “big issues.”
Crystal Chan was born in Wisconsin to a Chinese father and a Polish mother. Outside of Chinese food, her father did little to educate Chan in the ways of his ancestors, choosing to assimilate as much as possible (they were the only mixed race couple in Oshkosh), something many immigrants do for safety (my own father did this, as well). It took her years to find herself and take pride in her mixed heritage, and now she is known for her work in educating readers, students, and workplaces on diversity issues. While Bird, her first novel, received much acclaim and was published in nine countries, for her second novel she had to persist through multiple drafts, multiple rejections, and find a new agent.
TLM: I was a huge fan of Bird, your middle-grade novel. It was one of the first novels for young readers I was aware of that had a mixed-race protagonist. Now you are launching your second novel. The main character, Ronney, is male this time, and mixed race once again, but this time you take on mental health issues and gun control. You’re a woman of vision and I know it took time to find a publisher. Now All That I Can Fix is receiving much praise and many starred reviews. As a mixed-race writer as well, I understand why you don’t declare Ronney’s ethnicity, and I applaud you. But tell us what’s behind your decision to keep it from the reader, and if this was an issue for editors or publishers.
Crystal Chan: Ronney’s decision to keep his racial ethnicity from the reader directly stems from his in-your-face personality. He doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to do, and he’s tired of people’s prying questions into his racial background and the judgments stemming from that. I’ve had a number of readers comments on how odd it was not to have “a box” to assign him to, and at least a couple of people have said that because of the lack of specificity, in their imagination they started to think of him as racially white.
In the editorial process, I didn’t get any pushback from my editor — she is also a POC and actually liked that part of Ronney’s character — although my first agent (who is white) did express reservation about having him be so in-your-face about refusing to specify his race. So, gratefully, I haven’t gotten too much pushback — not yet, anyway! And honestly, if I do, I think it will be a good opportunity to open up a conversation about why measuring the “pieces of the racial pie” for mixed-race individuals is so important for monoracial people in the first place. While I think that identifying your racial background is important — for both the individual and the community — sometimes clinging to the “pieces” can do more harm than good.
Why? Because then you minimize your actual personhood. Don’t get me wrong, as a race activist, I will be the first to say: Race is important, and exceptionally important. But it’s not the only thing. And something that gets lost is the fact that POCs have to navigate all of the other hardships in life that white people do — hardships of loss, families breaking up, mental illness — on top of managing racism and what that does to our psyche, body, and spirit. This is no small task. And so, for All That I Can Fix, I wanted to highlight that yes, Ronney is mixed race, but he has problems just like you and me, just like the white family down the street.
I’m very passionate about highlighting this fact, that POCs struggle with racism on a daily basis — but then they also have to deal with everything else. Ronney does so with a sense of (dark) humor: That is his survival mechanism, how to get by from day to day. All humans have survival mechanisms, right?
Something that gets lost is the fact that POCs have to navigate all of the other hardships in life that white people do — hardships of loss, families breaking up, mental illness — on top of managing racism and what that does to our psyche, body, and spirit.
Jennifer Zeynab Joukhada
Jennifer Zeynab Joukhada’s recently released novel, The Map of Salt and Stars, unlike the other books on this list, was not written explicitly for young readers. But the timely topic, the fact that this is one of the first novels released in the U.S. to feature Syrian refugees, and because the 12-year-old protagonist’s voice is accessible to teen readers, makes this novel a must on this list. Joukhada was born in Manhattan to a Muslim father from Syria, and a Christian mother. When the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, it had a huge impact on her, as she worried about her family overseas. She began writing this novel in 2015 in an attempt to understand the plight of refugees, and “how they can redefine home.”
TLM: In true Arab fashion, you deftly weave two stories together in The Map of Salt and Stars. One storyline follows al-Idrisi, a real mapmaker responsible for creating one of the world’s most accurate maps during the twelfth century. You said you explored this because this piece of history isn’t something that’s taught in this country. (Many contributions from people of color have gotten lost over time and to the predominant white culture in the U.S.) Your second and main storyline follows Nour, a young girl born in America, who ends up back in her parents’ ancestral country of Syria, fleeing for her life after war breaks out. In addition to the attention you place on the Syrian crisis, still ongoing, please put this story in context with the current climate in regard to refugees coming over the Mexican border and the administration’s recent treatment, specifically how their experience relates to your novel and to all refugees universally.
Jennifer Zeynab Joukhada: It would be impossible for me to talk about how my novel relates to the experiences of refugees in a universal way, because every person’s story is unique. But in writing a book about maps and mapmaking, I also wanted to talk about borders and how they are differentially enforced. Many nations attempt to restrict the movement of people from certain groups (especially Black, brown, poor, and/or Muslim folks), particularly if they are migrants or refugees, while others enjoy much greater freedom of movement. We are seeing examples of this globally, particularly in the U.S. with the Muslim Ban and with the detainment centers in which migrants crossing the U.S.–Mexico border are being held. With The Map of Salt and Stars, I tried to explore the emotional realities of the trauma of displacement, particularly on children and families, and how the violent enforcement of borders affects those families as they search for safety. I think it’s important to be aware of those realities as we try to imagine a different, less violent world in which refugees and migrants are treated with respect and dignity.
In writing about the violence that is happening in Syria and my community’s grief, I did what I felt was my responsibility not only as a Syrian American but also as a human being — I refused to look away from that pain. I had to carve out space in myself to hold the things I was writing about, no matter how difficult. With this novel, I wanted to make space for both the grief that many people in the Syrian diaspora are feeling right now as well as the potential for hope and healing, if only by keeping our heritage and our loved ones alive by telling our stories. I especially wanted to remind other people of Syrian descent, other Arab Americans, and other Muslim Americans that our voices matter, even when we are so often silenced. I think it’s important that we keep fighting to speak our truths.
Cindy Pon was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and immigrated to California when she was 6 years old. As she learned English, words and reading became her passion and she wrote poetry and short stories. When she married and stayed home to take care of her own children, she finally had the time and desire to tackle a novel. Her debut, Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia, was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth in 2009 by ALA’s Booklist. That year, her novel was the only Asian-inspired YA fantasy released by a major publisher.
Pon describes ancient China as “more foreign and seen as less commercial than Mars or the moon.” She has worked hard to make her female heroines step out of the traditional servant role that literature traditionally placed them in, and her latest novel depicts a variety of ethnic characters. She is on the advisory board for We Need Diverse Books.
TLM: In 2008, you were told early on by an editor that “Asian fantasy doesn’t sell,” and you had to contact 121 agents before being accepted. Four weeks later your novel went to auction. Your most recent one, Want, your first sci-fi novel, is nominated for an Andre Norton Award. That’s a big honor. Its plot eerily parallels our current political times — your futuristic Taipei is suffering from the effects of global warming and pollution (the sky is no longer blue), and only the wealthy have access to the healthcare and protection necessary to survive. Your heroes are eco warriors. And an Asian male headshot graces the cover. Please tell me a bit about your journey as an author from your first novel to Want, and if you’ve seen any changes as a result of your groundbreaking books. And do let us know how this fits in with your work as cofounder of Diversity in YA.
Cindy Pon: Thank you, Tara! So while Want is my best-known title five books in, I had a really hard time selling my second duology (Serpentine + Sacrifice). I feel very fortunate the books found a home with Month9Books, but they are probably my least-known titles. So in the conventional sense of the word, I might not be seen as having a booming upward trajectory if you’re only going by sales numbers.
Even when I was told to stop writing what I loved, I kept doing it. I had a meeting with my agent in 2011 after my first duology tanked, and I thought it was a break-up meal. He told me to look at the market, look at what sells. I replied I knew exactly what sells in the current YA market (and it was NOT Asian fantasy), but I was going to keep writing what I wrote. And he was with me or he wasn’t. He is still with me, ten years later. I didn’t see a book with an Asian girl on the cover until my thirties, and that was Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min, Girl Genius (2003). I continue to write for teen Cindy, who read voraciously, but never got to see herself in a book.
I feel that there has been much more dialogue and awareness in publishing inclusive stories, especially speculative fiction (which is what I write). I’ve seen tremendous changes from when I first debuted nearly a decade ago. It wasn’t until recently that I’ve seen publishers put money behind YA Asian fantasies. I believe Traci Chee and Roshani Chokshi were the first Asian fantasy authors who got a strong lead title push with their debuts and hit the NYT list. That’s only within the last few years that we have seen this kind of investment in YA books with Asian protagonists. It was unheard of when Silver Phoenix debuted as the first Asian YA fantasy back in 2009.
Even when I was told to stop writing what I loved, I kept doing it.
It’s very exciting, but there is still work to be done. Malinda Lo and I started Diversity in YA back in 2011, but are on quasi-hiatus now due to our own very busy personal and writerly lives. Also, we feel that We Need Diverse Books has really launched the conversation to the forefront of publishing and is doing such tremendous and important work. It’s incredible to see!
About the Interviewer
Tara Lynn Masih grew up on Long Island. None of the books she read as a youth represented her experiences as someone of mixed descent. My Real Name Is Hanna, her debut novel from Mandel Vilar Press, seeks to draw attention to the roots of antisemitism and racism, to the fall-out of war, and to the tragedies that befall us when diverse communities don’t stand together. Hanna was recognized as a Goodreads’ Best Book of the Month for Sept. 2018 in YA, and received a Skipping Stones Honor Award in the category of multiculturalism.