Writing a Narrative of Inclusion: Why children’s literature needs diversity

Guest post by Author Mike Yam

In 1999, I was a senior at Bergen Catholic High School in New Jersey and I was tasked with writing a paper on diversity. During a move, I was digging through boxes and uncovered this buried memory. I don’t know why I have this particular paper, but I do know I found it at the right time. I had just completed my first book, Fried Rice and Marinara, and the writing process had made me reflecting on my life experiences in ways I never had before. 

As a child, I didn’t give much attention to my background and different cultures. I always knew I was Chinese and Italian. For most of my life I have said I’m “half” Chinese and “half” Italian, because it was the only way I could define my background. I’m trying to stop doing that. When I was with my Chinese family, I was Chinese and Italian. When I was with my Italian family, I was Italian and Chinese. I know I’m both and my family never made me feel like I was half of anything. When you go out into the wild, society has a way of wanting to categorize everything. 

The idea of representation can be both over-the-top and subtle. Growing up, my favorite tennis player was Michael Chang. My favorite movie star? Easy, Bruce Lee. My favorite video game? Mortal Kombat because I could pick my character, Liu Kang. If you asked me then why I gravitated towards these figures I would have told you Chang doesn’t ever give up on a ball, Bruce is unbeatable, and Kang throws fire, so mic drop. I know for a fact I never would have said because they are Asian. I don’t think I was savvy enough to put the pieces together. Looking back, I believe there was something silent inside of me that loved the idea of someone who looked like me achieving something special. That’s representation having a quietly profound impact. 

That May, I went to my local Barnes & Noble. It was Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month and I was curious to see what books were available for children. I found one small rack containing 31 books. Seven were written by two authors; five had male leading characters. Among the thousands of books available for  children in the store, only 31 stories featured Asian characters. Not only do we have a lack of inventory, we have a lack of storytellers! 24 Asian authors feels embarrassingly insignificant. That lack of representation doesn’t give voice to the experience of growing up Asian. We can do better. According to the National Education  Association, only 9% of the children’s books published in the US feature Asian characters. That lack of representation is having an insidious impact.  

During the course of my career, I have been fortunate enough to speak to students about a path in broadcasting. I have always been disheartened by the lack of Asian representation in media courses. I truly believe an inability to plant seeds for Asian girls and boys on a career in journalism or creative mediums is a  massive obstacle we are facing. Diversity in storytelling is paramount. Stories help foster a sense of belonging and validate the experiences of people and communities who are made to feel insignificant. Furthermore, the lack of diverse stories shapes the  perception of how children view other ethnicities. How people are portrayed reinforces negative narratives. 

Back in 1999, my teacher wrote me a note about my diversity paper: “You are a true example of someone who has found unity in diversity and you can be a walking ambassador to those who try to emphasize the irreconcilable differences in the myriad of cultures and ethnicities and ideas that comprise our small world.” 

Maybe he planted a seed that has finally sprouted. I have a small platform in the sports community, but I would challenge all of my contemporaries to be vocal on the challenges that persist. If a minority child is going to have few opportunities to read worthwhile stories about their culture and experiences, how can we expect them to have a positive view of their own identity?

Mike Yam is the author of the Vooks Original story, Fried Rice and Marinara, and a studio host for the NFL Network. Watch Mike make The Case for Diverse Children’s Stories in his Tedx UCIrvine talk.