Asian Girl Problem #112: My Dad, the Champion of the World

This unexpected aphorism on the last page of Danny the Champion of the World is one of the reasons it’s my favorite childhood book. I remember the first time I read it, perhaps around 10, and being blown away by such a simple story. Unlike most of the books I loved, there was no mystery to be solved, no dating drama, no space/time travel, not even female characters.

Obviously, I knew Roald Dahl was a visionary, just not that he could top fantastical stories of witches and giants. I’d go to his section in the library and work my way around every book under his name, always avoiding DTCOTW, partly because of its thickness and unfortunate cover illustration.

Its magic lies in simple, evocative details and the love between parent and child. Roald taps into what, I dare say, every kid wants—more than dragons and video games and drugs—an amazing mentor who’s curious and not only lets, but goads his/her to explore every natural curiosity.

Like Danny’s dad, mine was the type to suggest we build a kite or sew a doll instead of buying one at the store. He took me on hikes and let me taste berries and flowers (he knew his botany). He included me in every home improvement project and let me take apart any appliance I wanted to so I could look at the tiny electrical landscapes inside. Even when I was in high school, too cool to entertain his whims, he kept doing them because he genuinely liked building clocks and whittling hideous wood figures.

The main narrative of DTCOTW involves a peasant heist where they fill raisins with sleeping powder and feed them to the peasants that live in the woods of a gross landowner who’s out to destroy their indie gas station—random but awesome. Reminds me of the time my dad stole two geese eggs from a nest near our house and took them home to see if we could make them hatch. We put them  in a makeshift incubator and two months later, it was safe to say they wouldn’t see this world. Even though we knew it was messed up, we did it in the name of science.


Asian Girl Problem #51: Asian Characters in Children’s Lit

When I look at children’s books nowadays they sure are representative. You got stories about Hispanic kids with two moms, Asian kids with half siblings, and American Indian kids with gluten intolerances.

The other day, while I was looking through my childhood books for a Beverly Cleary novel I used to love (no luck), I came across this book I purchased at one of those Scholastic book sales my school held every few months.

In all those years, I probably bought three books from the book sale. Usually I just went to the library, which my mom saw as a free form of childcare. I didn’t get an allowance, which I was perpetually bitter about, and the only way my parents would give me the money was if I brought home the book brochure and made a strong enough case to them.

It wasn’t so hard convincing them to let me buy this one. The story wasn’t about a Chinese girl, but it was a start. When book delivery day came, I proudly kept the book at the corner of my desk, wanting everyone to see the book with an Asian protagonist.

Sadly, this book was yawn central.  I read it once and had no desire to open it again, going back to the stories with modern characters and high school drama I craved.  It’s written in a formal, stilted way, as if translated form a foreign language, which is perhaps all you can expect from a book about ancient Japan written by someone not from that background.

And while the photos were beautiful,  I couldn’t help wishing the people inside were more attractive. Why can’t there be guilty pleasure books with Asian characters? Why does everything have to be based on an ancient fable or heavy moral lesson? I much preferred Beverly Cleary, despite her sterile settings and racial insensitivities.

I’m not sure if the publishing world is ready to invest in children’s books with minority characters, whose stories aren’t focused on them being as such. I’ve looked, and haven’t found anything not set in ancient times or modern-day Chinatown. Can’t wait for that day to come.