This Is the Book Series on Famous Asian Americans I Wish I’d Had as a Kid
I grew up with Ai-Ling Louie's folklore retelling—now she's publishing her own inspiring biographies for children
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An alternate tale of Cinderella has haunted me since childhood. A picture book in rich pastels, it told the story of a poor servant girl with a nasty step-family, named Yeh-Shen, who lived “In the dim past, even before the Ch’in and the Han dynasties” in China. This folklore can be traced back in writing to the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), and shares remarkable similarities with that of Cinderella—she goes to a ball, loses a slipper, and is found by a prince by virtue of her small feet. But the oldest European version of Cinderella dates back only to 1634. “Cinderella seems to have made her way to Europe from Asia,” reads a note on the dedication page to Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story From China. The book was written by Ai-Ling Louie and illustrated by Ed Young, and it was first published by Philomel Books, a division of Putnam, in 1982.
Like the legend of Yeh-Shen, Ai-Ling Louie’s career has lived in the shadows of children’s book publishing. As an Asian American author who came of age during the ‘60s, her trials and tribulations are a sharp contrast to the creative careers of many Asian American artists working today. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College (where she and Vera Wang were the only Chinese Americans in their class of ’71), and Wheelock College, Louie aimed to write children’s books about successful, modern-day Asian Americans, but no publishers were interested. Louie switched gears to publish the legend of Yeh-Shen, but remained determined to see her passion project through. Between 2012 and 2018, she ultimately self-published the series under her own Dragoneagle Press. It includes biographies on Vera Wang, Yo-Yo Ma and his sister Yeoh-Cheng Ma, astronaut Kalpana Chawla, and most recently, U.S. Congresswoman Patsy Mink.
When Electric Literature asked Twitter followers to share the first book they’d read by an Asian American author during APA heritage month, I realized my answer was Louie’s Yeh-Shen. I then was thrilled to discover her more recent biographies for children—books I wish I’d had growing up. I talked to Louie about her struggle to put the series into the world, why she felt it was valuable, and what it was like to be an Asian American author during her time.
Cathy Erway: Were there many other Asian Americans in your school environment? And did this have an effect on you or your work?
Ai-Ling Louie: I’d like to start a little farther back than college and show how immigration laws affect the lives of real people. I was one of the few Chinese American children born in the U.S. in the 1940’s. Immigration laws discriminated against us, keeping immigration from China to 150 persons a year, while those from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany numbered over 104,000.
In 1954 when I was a kindergartener in a public school on Long Island in New York, I, alone, integrated my school as the only non-white in the entire building. The name-calling and insulting gestures and shunning I received were a shock to me. It was a good thing I came from a strong family, who told me I was to hold my head up and to use my wits to find a way around any obstacle.
When discriminatory immigration laws are written and prejudice against one race or another is acceptable, I find there are many who suffer and only a few lucky ones who find a way to thrive. Even if we celebrate the few who make it, we must not forget the many whose lives are stunted or whose minds are embittered by their treatment.
I saw all around me the perception that Chinese girls are pretty and docile and Chinese boys are weak and unassertive. It warped my generation, and I still see these stereotypes around me. My family and I talk about them all the time. We see how it has negatively affected many of our Chinese American cousins, nieces and nephews. I set out to try to change these perceptions.
CE: What made you decide to share the story of Yeh-Shen as an illustrated book for children?
ALL: I wanted to write stories about Asians in America, but the ones I submitted to publishers were not being accepted. I decided to try to break in to publishing with a folk tale that my grandmother knew, Yeh-Shen. Sure enough, it was quickly accepted. I thought I could write my Asian-American stories after “Yeh-Shen” was published.
CE: How did you publish your series of Asian American biographies for children?
ALL: I spent many frustrating years trying to get a second book published. Finally, I realized I was going to have to find a way around this obstacle. I started my own publishing company, Dragoneagle Press, in 2007. My brother, Jonathan Louie, a graphic designer, is my partner. Children and teachers were clamoring for biographies of Asian Americans. May was designated as Asian American History Month. Libraries needed attractive books for their May displays. I decided to write a series, “Amazing Asian Americans.” It was my hope that someday the big publishers would pick up my series and distribute it across America.
CE: How do you decide on the subjects for these biographies? And are you working on any new additions to the series now?
ALL: When I got to Sarah Lawrence College, Vera Wang and I were the only Chinese-Americans in our class. She was the best-dressed, affluent daughter from one of the top private schools. I was the girl on scholarship, who had needed tutoring in French class. After graduation, I watched her career rise and rise and rise.
When I was a librarian in New Jersey in the 2000’s, I saw that the state had a large population of South Asian Americans, mostly from India. I learned that South Asian Americans were the U.S.’s latest and largest Asian immigrant group come to the United States. There wasn’t a single biography of a South Asian American on the children’s bookshelf. I knew there was a U.S. astronaut, who was originally from India, Kalpana Chawla. So, I set out to write a book about her.
Patsy Mink was the first congresswoman of color and the co-author of an important law, Title IX, which changed education and women’s lives in a big way. Yet Americans didn’t seem to know who she was, or why she was important. I found out her papers, 2,000 boxes of them, were stored at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and open to the public. I spent three summers at the Library, doing research, a job I find exciting.
I am not working on any new books for the series. I am happy that I accomplished what I set out to do.
CE: Why did you feel that this series was an important addition to children’s books?
ALL: After 1965, I saw the next generation of Chinese Americans come to the U.S. The new Hart-Cellar Law let more Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, come to this country and to bring in their families, their sisters and brothers, to reunite families. There were more young students of color in public school classes. As an elementary school teacher and then a children’s librarian, I was getting to see children from China, India, Brazil and Egypt, all in the same school. There were many students who looked like me but came from Vietnam, Korea or the Philippines. And so, I began to see myself as an Asian American rather than just a Chinese American. These Asian American children needed books in their libraries that showed children like them. They needed to see a future for themselves as American citizens, capable of contributing to the country. Indeed, all Americans needed to see Asian Americans and other non-whites as full Americans. American publishers were slow to see this and change. The few books they were publishing were full of stereotypes. I knew I could do better.