Though I’m the mom of two Chinese children, my husband and I are not Chinese ourselves — and until we adopted our boys in 2012 and 2013, neither of us knew much about China, Chinese history, or Chinese culture.
And when I say, “not much,” I mean embarrassingly little.
When we decided to adopt Chinese children, we made the commitment to keep their birth culture alive. The Internet is a wonderful thing, and although I’m far from being an expert in all things Chinese, I do know some basics and try very diligently to pass what I know on to my children and keep learning.
Today my two kids aren’t just U.S. citizens — they’re mac n’ cheese-eating, fidget spinning, dinosaur/Star Wars/sports-obsessed kids, and I look for opportunities to discuss their birth country and celebrate China whenever I can. That might be finding a cultural event to attend, showing them pictures of our two trips to China, or reading a book that features Chinese characters.
But I have to say, when it comes to that last one, we’ve kind of struck out on more than one occasion. There just aren’t many books for younger kids that feature Asian characters, and the ones that do are educational books about culture and celebrations. Those books do teach us things and capture my kids’ attention for a little bit, but what they really want are books about cool, adventurous kids who do cool, adventurous things. They want to read about rocket ships and super powers. They want funny and entertaining.
And why not?
Jerry Zhang knows exactly what I’m talking about. Not too long ago, the author and father realized there were very few books that featured Asian characters that his daughter could identify with. So he decided to write one.
Pepper Zhang: Artist Extraordinaire is the first in a series of books Zhang is raising money for on Kickstarter. Meanwhile, two more Pepper Zhang books are in the works.
The idea for Pepper Zhang took shape when Jerry’s daughter Madison said something that stopped him right in his tracks: She didn’t want to be Chinese. The 4-year-old wanted to read books with smart and sassy female characters like Eloise, Fancy Nancy, and Madeline. When Jerry tried to explain the importance of reading books that would help her connect to her culture, Madison pushed the books aside and answered, “I don’t want to be Chinese.”
The “I don’t want to be Chinese” comment particularly resonated with Jerry because of his own sensitivities with his cultural identity, while growing up as an Asian American. But the creative solution he came up with is a powerful one; because it won’t just benefit Madison, but also Asian children everywhere who want to see themselves in their beloved storybooks.
Pepper Zhang: Artist Extraordinaire is about a little girl who gets sent to her room for throwing a temper tantrum (sound familiar, anyone?) because she didn’t want to go to bed. While in her room, Pepper discovers she loves to paint and her imagination and talent results in her becoming an artist extraordinaire.
Pepper is funny and fierce. She also just so happens to be Chinese. And I’m delighted to see her hitting the bookstores.
“Pepper Zhang is appropriate for children of all backgrounds,” Jerry Zhang tells Babble. “I started this book because I wanted to offer a fun story that featured an Asian child as the lead character/main point of focus. While culture is incredibly important and should be written about in children’s books, I equally think there should just be books that star diverse lead characters that aren’t necessarily tied to cultural elements. In this case, Pepper Zhang is Asian but her story and her adventures are very much universal ones that all children can appreciate and enjoy.”
It matters for children of all ethnicities to be represented in children’s literature. And I don’t think I realized just how much that was the case until now. I’d love for my own kids to point to a popular book on a shelf and exclaim, “Hey, that looks just like me!”
And now, they finally can.
The books we own that feature Asian characters are books I’ve had to hunt for. We might see an upswing on books featuring Asian characters around the Lunar New Year, but those books are usually about the Lunar New Year. According to First Book, only 7 percent of children’s books reviewed in 2016 featured Asian-Pacific Americans. I’m glad to see things are finally changing.
“Ultimately, my goal was a simple one,” says Zhang. “To write a fun and silly book that stars a little girl who’s Asian in all of her awesomeness. I feel so humbled and encouraged that so many people are touched by my little book for my daughters.”
Score one for diversity; I can’t wait to share Pepper’s stories with my own children, who may just see themselves in one of her fun sidekicks.
h/t Huffington Post