Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado
WNDMG Wednesday Guest – Author Waka T. Brown
We at WNDMG Wednesday are thrilled to host our guest post writer, author Waka T. Brown. Waka’s piece in honor of AAPI Heritage Month is a spot-on look at the importance of representation in middle-grade books, and we’re so grateful she took the time to stop by our blog.
Author Waka T. Brown–My Journey
Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, everyone! I’m honored to write a blog post this month for “From the Mixed-Up Files… of Middle-Grade Authors.”
With two middle grade novels which prominently feature Asian American main characters under my belt (and two more under contract), I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect and share what my journey as an Asian American author has been like thus far.
Being Sabrina Duncan
I’m curious how many Asian American children of the 70s and 80s are out there who remember “Charlie’s Angels.” Not the 2019 reboot with Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, and Ella Balinska. Not even the 2000 one with Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz. I’m talking about the one with Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, and Kate Jackson. Way back when, my friends and I sometimes played like we were the Angels—fighting crime and beating up the bad guys. I always played the character of Sabrina Duncan because… she had the darkest hair of the trio. Like me.
It Felt Presumptuous
I grew up reading and loving books by Madeleine L’Engle, Lois Duncan, Beverly Cleary, L.M. Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder (just to name a few). I might not have looked like any of their main characters, but I identified with the spunky, smart, and resourceful girls featured in almost all their stories.
I never once thought about what it might mean to read a book with girls on the cover who looked like me. I didn’t even know that it was an option. It felt presumptuous to even want that. After all, until I left home for college, I only knew fewer than a dozen Asian Americans outside of my family. I assumed there weren’t many of us at all, and TV, films, books all seemed to support what I assumed was true.
Looking for Meaningful, Positive Representation
So, what does it mean to grow up without meaningful, positive representation? When I was a teenager, beautiful equaled Christy Brinkley. When kids told me I was ugly, part of me wondered if they had a point. After all, I never saw models like me gracing the covers of Seventeen. When I never encountered stories about people like me, I internalized that maybe our stories don’t matter.
However, when I arrived in California for college for the first time when I was 18, it was with a bit (a lot) of culture shock that I realized I was not alone. I had never experienced a diverse environment like that one before. I joined the Asian American Student Association. I met Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipina, and South Asian friends. During study breaks we watched episodes of “Beverly Hills 90210,” and I wondered to myself where all the Asian people were. It took place in California, after all, and what I saw represented in media didn’t look anything like the diversity that now surrounded me.
“Asian Leads Don’t Sell”
Yet, when I started writing (screenplays mostly), my characters still didn’t look like me. “Imagine a bankable star,” I was advised when I created my characters. I wrote shallow, frothy romcoms that I thought would have mass appeal. When nothing came of them, I decided to throw previous advice out the window and wrote a teenage Roman Holiday-esque story… with two Asian leads. I would like to say this is when my big break came, but alas no. I was only able to get one person in the industry to even read it because, “Asian leads don’t sell.” Maybe at the time people truly believed that. But part of me thought (like my character Annie in Dream, Annie, Dream), How do you get to be a big name/bankable star if you’re never cast? After a disappointing reception to my attempt to create some Asian American representation, I went back to writing my standard fare for a while… but then again, I decided on a project, a far-fetched project. A memoir about 12 year-old me called While I Was Away.
Waka T. Brown at age 12
Even though a lot of people were dismissive of this endeavor and echoed my own concerns such as “Memoir? And middle grade? Good luck, that’s gonna be a tough sell,” and “you need to have an established platform to sell something like that,” I wrote it anyway. No one bought my more “commercial” writing, so why not? I wanted to get the memories down before they faded for myself. For every negative remark, there were also encouraging ones, like “You should definitely write that story” and “That is the story only you can write.” And those were the ones I hung on to.
((Like reading memoirs and ready to find more? Read this Rosanne Parry’s roundup of Diverse MG Memoirs))
Plus, there were other promising signs urging me not to give up. Crazy Rich Asians was a box office smash. Bookstore shelves looked a lot different from when I was a little girl. I caught up on years of reading, including works by Grace Lin and Kelly Yang. And despite a number of rejections that pointed toward my story’s lack of marketability and/or relatability with a wider audience, While I Was Away eventually sold at auction in a 2-book deal.
How people have embraced my first book since its publication in January 2021 has truly blown me away. It was an Oregon Book Award finalist, one of New York Public Library’s Best Books for Kids of 2021, a Bank Street Children’s Best Book of the Year for 2022…
Dream, Annie, Dream
But, I definitely feel my work as a writer isn’t finished. With my second book, Dream, Annie, Dream, I tackle the issue of representation head-on. Even though it’s a work of fiction, many of the experiences were drawn from my own. Although some of the topics and incidents in it might feel uncomfortable, it is my hope that young readers are drawn to my main character Annie Inoue like I was drawn to Sara Crew, Laura Ingalls, Anne Shirley, and Jo March.
They’ve Needed This Story for Decades
While I truly feel my books are for everyone (even teenaged sons who have yet to read their mother’s second book… cough, cough… you know how you are), I appreciate that what each reader gains from them is their own. Some readers have let me know how they related to certain incidents. Some have mentioned that they just enjoyed the story. But the ones that I hold the most dear have been the ones who tell me that they’ve needed this story for decades.
For me personally, representation has come a long way from “the dark-haired Charlie’s Angel” to these two books.
It’s my sincere hope that more stories, diverse stories, stories about events we’ve never heard of continue to surface. And that as readers, we continue to embrace them all with open hearts and minds.
Waka is a Stanford graduate with a B.A. in International Relations and a Master’s in Secondary Education. While I Was Away (Quill Tree/HarperCollins 2021) is her debut novel.
Dream, Annie, Dream (Quill Tree/HarperCollins 2022) is her first work of historical fiction.
More About Waka T. Brown
In addition to writing middle-grade stories, I enjoy writing screenplays. I wrote and co-directed the short film Double Tap (Official Selection, 2018 DC Shorts and Portland Film Festivals) and my feature-length screenplays (comedies, romcoms, & animated features) have been 2nd-rounders at AFF, placed in the semifinals of PAGE, and quarterfinals of Screencraft writing competitions.
I’m currently an online instructor with the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE). I teach about U.S.-Japan relations to high school students in Japan, and have also authored curriculum on several international topics. Recently, I was honored to receive the U.S.-Japan Foundation and EngageAsia’s national 2019 Elgin Heinz Outstanding Teacher award.
I live in the Portland, Oregon area with my husband, three sons, and my naughty yet lovable shiba Niko. I have a lot of hobbies such as running, art, baking, and playing guitar.
Connect with Waka: