The Kindness of Strangers

As mentioned on a previous post, a couple weeks ago I attended ALA and combed through the exhibit hall, picking up books and talking with publishers, authors, editors, and so on. I stopped by Kane/Miller, which translates and publishes children’s books from other countries into English and sells them to the US market. They have a very nice selection of picture books from Korea. After talking a bit with the people staffing the booth (I told them how much I like some of their books, told them about my research, gave my business card, etc.), unfortunately, due to my limited student budget (and my great faith in borrowing from the library), I only purchased two books (one was a translation from Taiwan) and went on my merry way. When I arrived at school this week, there was a huge package waiting in my mailbox. Someone at Kane/Millersent me all the Korean picture books in their catalog, minus the one Korean picture book I had purchased that day.

I’m not exactly sure who it was because there was no note, but I’m incredibly blessed and so thankful for the kindness and thoughtfulness of the sender. One of the great things about this profession is getting free children’s books. But one of the better things about this profession is experiencing the kindness of the people who work with those books.

Orientalism for Sale

Tonight I studied at one of my favorite bookstores in Champaign. A couple years ago I found the highly offensive My Family is Forever (2004) on prominent display in the children’s section. I get it; it’s a warm and fuzzy “adopting from Asia is wonderful” picture book that makes colorblind adoptive parents feel good. But it’s also a picture book with chinky, orientalist illustrations and a story line that completely dismisses the unresolved and ongoing politics of transracial, transnational adoption. However, despite my repugnance for this book and the store’s decision to prop up the awfully caricatured, nameless protagonist’s face on a bookshelf, I still patronize the bookstore because it’s a local store, the salespeople are wonderful, they have the absolute best chocolate malt freeze ever, and they offer free wi-fi. 

But tonight my friend and I saw a copy of The Five Chinese Brothers (1938) on display and I wonder just how much I’m willing to sacrifice my values for a really good chocolate malt freeze. I mean really, who doesn’t know that The Five Chinese Brothers is a real folk tale that Claire Hutchet Bishop basically stole and doesn’t give proper credit for? That the chinky illustrations represent some of the worst stereotyping in American society? That the “butter yellow” color used to illustrate the Chinese brothers’ skin is as offensive as the slanted black lines used for their eyes? That the idea that five Chinese men look exactly the same as each other and as the hundreds of other men in their town is another gross stereotyping of Asian males?

Whether it’s 1938, 2004 or 2008, Orientalism is still for sale in this country. 

Rice Bowled Over

Yesterday I spent a few hours browsing through the ALA exhibition hall. Anyone who’s gone to ALA knows how deadly this is – you walk in with an empty bag and full wallet and walk out with a full bag and empty wallet. Thank God for free books and posters, though. And the beautiful Hyperion bag 🙂 Thanks for signing my books, Mo Willems (I still think you should have won the Caldecott Medal for Knuffle Bunny!) Linda Sue Park, and Francisco X. Alarcon!

As I walked through the children’s book publishers, I did notice something else, not quite as lethal as spending lots of money, but just as devastating. Out of the new Korean American children’s picture books, some have female characters with rice bowl haircuts. Back in the day it was a huge trend here in the US, as well as for Korean parents to cut their kids’ hair in the shape of an upside-down bowl. My brother and I went through that phase as well. I get it. 

But it’s 2007, not 1980. And this is the US, not Korea. (side note: I’ve seen white kids with bowl haircuts, but I’ve never heard the term “rice bowl” used to describe them. But for some reason we call this haircut on Asian people “rice bowl haircut.” Ahem. Would you like some Orientalismwith your rice?)

The new Yoon story (she has this hairstyle in the first 2 books as well), called Yoon and the Jade Bracelet, and a new picture book called Something for School (translated from Korea and otherwise nicely illustrated) both portray very young girls with these hairstyles. They remind of a picture book called Chinese Eyes (1974) in which some kids bully an adopted Korean because she has “Chinese eyes.” Her mother tells her that kids in China have eyes similar to hers, and the accompanying illustrations portray decapitated children’s heads, all with chinky “Chinese” eyes and rice bowl hair cuts, against a large map of China. First of all, it’s really problematic to suggest that Korean and Chinese kids look the same, and second, does that make it okay to call her Chinese Eyes? And okay, so this was 1974, sort of in the middle of the multiculturalism movement. But if we decided back then that Orientalism wasn’t cool (thank you, Edward Said) why are we reproducing this imagery in 2007?

Blogging and ALA

This is my first real post on wordpress. I haven’t blogged regularly since xanga; my account rarely gets updated. I wonder if I’ll blog regularly here; I doubt it, but only time will tell.

I spent the weekend hanging out at ALA. It’s one of my favorite conferences mostly because 1) reunions! 2) exhibits, exhibits, exhibits. I love buying new books at discounted prices, meeting authors, asking them to sign my books, and learning about all the new books.