Happy New Year, from all of us at We Need Diverse MG … and WOW, are we excited it’s finally 2021!
For our first entry in 2021, we’ve got a real treat: a guest post from debut author Christina Li. We’re excited to tell you all about Christina’s debut novel, CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE (Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins) … but first, a great reflection from Christina on why kids need diverse middle-grade books.
Guest Post: Christina Li
See it and Be it: Why Kids Need Diverse Middle-Grade books
By Christina Li
One of the texts I read at the beginning of high school was Emily Style’s piece, “Curriculum as Window and Mirror”, in which she described literature taught in education as a series of mirrors and windows. Later on, I also read a piece in which Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop added that literature can be viewed as not only mirrors and windows, but also sliding glass doors. More often than not, literature is made of books that are “windows”—in which you can peer through and see the experiences of others, or “sliding glass doors”, in which you can walk in and experience the author’s story as a participant. Sometimes, literature ends up being a “mirror”, in which you can view experiences that reflect your own identity, culture, and upbringing.
Growing up, I never had thought of literature as mirrors or windows or sliding glass doors—books were simply just escapes for me. I grew up as a shy child–the kind who, when the teacher called on the class to share their answers or their work, would silently hope to not get picked because even the thought of reading a paragraph aloud to the class terrified me. And so, naturally, I fell into books. I read about kids going on epic quests and facing down fearsome monsters and saving the ones they loved. I read about them standing up to bullies and finding a voice.
((Like Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s sliding glass doors perspective? Read this archived MUF post here which also investigates windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors.))
Seeing Through Windows
It didn’t really register in my mind that for the most part, the books I were reading had main characters who didn’t look like me. I didn’t realize that for the most part, I was looking through windows, until I read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. It was a Chinese mythology-inspired middle grade novel about a young girl named Minli who, upon hearing magical tales from her father, sets out to change her family’s fortune. It wasn’t just that I fell in love with the book itself, with its enchanting magic, the sweeping quest of crossing lands to find fortune for one’s family, and the talking dragon (because who doesn’t love talking dragons?). It was that Minli was the first Asian protagonist I’d ever come across, and looked like me and spoke the language that I spoke and was clever and resourceful and caring. It was that the story referenced the cultural details that I also grew up with. It was that I was, for the first time, finally looking into the mirror.
Being the Hero
I didn’t realize for so long that I was seeing myself only passively portrayed in books—if at all—until I finally saw myself actively reflected in a story. I saw myself as someone who could be the hero of the story—someone who could take charge and speak up, someone who could go on her own adventures and actively shape her destiny. And moreover, I saw myself as someone who could write those stories as well. I raced through the rest of Grace Lin’s books, and just weeks later, I began slowly brainstorming story ideas of my own. And the following year, when the teacher asked for volunteers to share their pieces during the creative writing unit, I was one of the first to speak up and volunteer.
In my experiences as a reader and a writer, seeing yourself—your identity and background and culture—reflected in books is one of the most validating things in the world. You’re no longer a passive observer; you actively relate to the narratives in the story. You see little cultural elements and details included in the book that you’re familiar with and you feel a small, comforting connection. You see characters who look like you take on struggles and challenges and epic adventures with bravery and resilience, and you think, I can be brave too.
Serving as Mirrors
Over the years it’s brought me so much happiness, as an Asian reader and writer, to see and read more and more diverse middle grade books with protagonists of Asian descent. And it’s been such a validating experience to write Asian middle grade stories of my own. In my own debut novel, Clues to the Universe, it was an absolute joy to write one of the main characters, Ro, a biracial Chinese-American girl. I loved including small details from my own Chinese-American upbringing, from pastries to jasmine tea to having Ro’s mother address her with the same endearing term that my own mother addressed me with. And moreover, I loved having Ro’s character shine on the page, with her hopes and fears and dreams. She was a fearless and inventive scientist. She had sky-high ambitions but was also struggling with grief and loss. She embraced her Chinese culture. She wasn’t afraid to speak out on behalf of her friends and her family. And most importantly, she was unquestionably and uncompromisingly the hero of her own narrative.
And that is truly what diverse books do, and what I hope to accomplish with my books: to include narratives that help serve as mirrors. That can help readers feel seen. That help kids feel like they can—and deserve to be—the heroes of their own stories.
About CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE
On the surface, Rosalind Ling Geraghty and Benjamin Burns are completely different. Aspiring rocket scientist Ro normally has a plan for everything. Yet she’s reeling from her dad’s unexpected death, and all she has left of him is a half-built model rocket and a crater-sized grief that she doesn’t know how to cope with. Artist Benji loves superheroes and comic books. In fact, he’s convinced his long-lost dad, who walked out on his family years ago, created his favorite comic book series, Spacebound–but has no way to reach him.
Ro and Benji were only supposed to be science class partners. But when a mix-up turns the unlikely pair into friends, Benji helps Ro build her rocket, and Ro helps Benji search through his comics—and across the country—to find out where his dad truly could be.
As the two face bullying, loss, and their own differences, Benji and Ro try to piece together clues to some of the biggest questions in the universe.
CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE publishes next week … on January 12, 2020.
Christina Li is a student studying Economics at Stanford University. When she is not puzzling over her stats problem set, she is daydreaming about characters and drinking too much jasmine green tea. She grew up in the Midwest but now calls California home. You can find her here:
I so agree with Christina about the importance of kids seeing characters like them in books. My daughter is adopted from China and there weren’t hardly any books like that when she was growing up. I’m glad authors like Christina are changing that. Can’t wait to read her book and to feature her at my blog, Literary Rambles.