Monday, March 22, 2021

Reading Aloud for Better Human Understanding: Asian-American Picture Books

Prejudice and hate crimes against Asian-Americans are not new in the United States, unfortunately, but the recent increase in bias related crimes against this segment of the American population reminds us that anti-bias efforts remain critical. The need to address the issues head on is made doubly important when political leaders are among the principal spreaders of this unreasoned hatred. One way to combat prejudice is through knowledge and understanding and one good way to spread knowledge and understanding is through a good book. Here are some great picture books that will help young readers learn about their Asian-American classmates and neighbors.

Long one of my favorite read alouds for children in grades 2-5, Angel Child, Dragon Child, by Michelle Maria Serat, with pictures by Vo-Dinh Mai, tells the story of Ut, recently arrived in the United States from Vietnam. Ut is teased by her new classmates for her different language and different clothes. School is a sad, dispiriting experience and home is a place where she misses her mother who has not made the journey with the family. Ut eventually makes an unlikely friend at school, a boy who was her chief tormentor, and the school community eventually unites around Ut and her family. Wonderful soft pencil and watercolor illustrations enhance the story.

In Grandfather's Journey, the great artist and story teller, Alan Say, recounts his own cross-cultural experience as a man who loves to countries. When in America, he misses Japan, when in Japan he misses his home in America. His grandfather, who made the journey from home in Japan to new home in America, would understand. A Caldecott medal winner. Don't miss it.

Coolies, by Yin, with phenomenal illustrations by Chris Sontpiet, tells the story of the Chinese immigrants to America who came to help build the transcontinental railroad. Arriving full of wonder and hope, Shek and his brother, Little Wong, find back breaking labor, harsh discrimination, and dangerous conditions in the railroad labor camps. The story, based on historical events, becomes a testament to these workers' courage and perseverance. The richly detailed pictures make the story even more unforgettable and compelling.

Just published this year, Eyes that Kiss in the Corner, by Joanna Ho, with drawings by Dung Ho, is a powerful reminder of the importance of a positive self-image for all young people. When a young Asian girl notices the difference between her eyes and the eyes of the other children in her class, she draws on the strength of her mother and grandmother to come to an understanding that her eyes are special and beautiful and filled with stories from the past and hope for the future.

An old, much loved favorite is Taro Yashima's Caldecott Honor winning tale of the Crow Boy. Chibi, or "tiny boy", is a strange boy in school. He was afraid of the teacher and could not learn a thing. He was afraid of the other children and could not make friends. The other children in school called him stupid and slowpoke. But day after day, year after year, Chibi came trudging to school. Finally, Chibi finds a teacher who understands him. Mr. Isobe discovers Chibi's special gifts. When Chibi shows off his ability to imitate the sounds of birds, the children are amazed and saddened by how much they had mistreated Chibi all those years. A character and a story to remember, with a universal message. 

A good book, well read. A kind word. A conversation about how we are all so very different and yet all so much the same. These are conversations we must be having with children right now. Hate and mistrust cannot be our legacy. When we grow to understand our different cultures, our different histories, our different physical features, we reduce the chances for hate to take root. What a wonderful goal for an author, an illustrator, and a teacher. 

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