Susan Tan, author of Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire, joins us to talk about the importance of finding — and writing — books like you.
I was 10 years old when I first realized that a book can change you.
I made this discovery by accident. I was browsing the metal stacks of the children’s room in my local library, and saw an interesting spine at the bottom of one of the shelves. I pulled the book out and looked at it. Then I looked some more. It took me a minute to realize what I was seeing, and by the time it hit me, I was already sitting on the floor, reading.
The book was Laurence Yep’s The Thief of Hearts. On its cover, two girls stand talking by a locker. One is Asian, with dark, straight hair. The other has light brown, almost blond hair. Her skin is tan, though lighter than the other girl’s. But she is unmistakably Asian.
There are certain kinds of absences that you don’t realize until you glimpse what you’ve been missing. When I looked at The Thief of Hearts, I saw something I’d never seen before, something I hadn’t known I wanted until it materialized in front of me: a mixed-race character, just like me, on the cover of a book.
This realization changed the act of reading. I had always loved books, and had assumed that book characters simply weren’t supposed to look like me. It was the way of the world, and imagining myself with skin the color of cream and wide blue eyes seemed a natural and easy trade if it meant I could get to Narnia.
So when I looked at that cover and saw Stacy, the book’s biracial protagonist, I was staggered to find that I didn’t have to be transfigured to be worthy of story — I was in one. But the joy of that moment quickly gave way a larger, harder question: where had I been before?
Rudine Sims Bishop once said that books can provide readers with windows which morph into sliding doors, allowing readers to imagine themselves in alternate worlds or experiences, with the potential to build compassion, creativity, and empathy as they do.
But books can also offer mirrors, showing readers facets of their own experience. Windows can be a deep source of joy, and mine certainly were (and still are). I had happily played along with the Pevensies and Harry Potter, and many of their adventures held a sliver of a mirror for me too: resonating with my desire for adventure, or friends, or a voice in the adult world.
But windows themselves aren’t enough, and a fragmented self-image is just that. It took The Thief of Hearts for me to see my full self in in a book. It took until the age of 10 for it to occur to me that I, in my totality, could cast a reflection, too.
I’ll never forget the experience of watching that mirror unfold for the first time. When Stacy gets angry that her appearance elicits surprise from strangers, or feels guilt because she can’t speak Chinese, or wishes she looked more like one parent than the other, feelings that I’d always carried around quietly, like a secret shame, were suddenly articulated and made normal. I wasn’t different, strange, or imagining things. I was valid, what I felt and experienced was real, and most earth-shattering of all, someone, somewhere, thought mine was a story that should be told.
A few days later I bounded back to the library, beside myself with the new possibilities and worlds suddenly opening up to me. Which made it hard to learn, when I got there, that those possibilities were already limited, and that my mirrors would be few and far between.
The Thief of Hearts marked both a gain and a loss for me. I gained validation so powerful that years later I can still describe that cover in intricate detail, and can easily show you exactly where I stood when I first found it. But I mourned the discovery that followed — that no one else seemed to think me worthy of any more stories.
My memories of The Thief of Hearts have never left me. In my adult life, I spent years reading my way through children’s, YA, and adult literature alike. I studied English in college and my doctorate focused on children’s literature. I thought I’d be an academic.
But the more I read, the more I felt the frustration that had been building ever since that day in the library. America’s demographics are rapidly changing, and a 2016 PEW study estimates that the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority by 2055.
Yet, according to Lee and Low — a children’s publisher dedicated to diversity — only 11% of children’s books published in the past 23 years have contained diverse content. While diversity in children’s literature improves drastically every year, an imbalance is clear — in 2015, 73.3% of children’s books featured white characters and 12.5% featured non-human subjects, leaving the 14.2% of books featuring characters of color barely outstripping stories of animals, trucks, and other objects.
The more I learned, the more I returned to that memory of myself in those metal library stacks at 10 years old: still waiting, and still wondering where my books were.
So I decided to write my own.
My debut children’s book, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire, details the life of Priscilla Lee-Jenkins, an eight and a half-year-old certain she’s destined for literary greatness, and determined to write her first-ever novel before the birth of her sister. That way, Cilla reasons, no one in her family can forget her when the new baby arrives. After hearing that authors should write what they know, Cilla sets about to write what she knows best — herself.
Cilla’s “memoirs” tell a wide range of stories: how she was bald until the age of five, how unicorns helped her conquer her fear of monsters, how she’s pretty certain a classmate is an alien, and how she overcame shyness to make a best friend. Woven into those stories is Cilla’s negotiation of the two very different sides of her family, one Chinese and the other White. And as Cilla grows, she has to face her increasing awareness of herself in the larger world — a world that often tries to put her in a box, defining her by her perceived “otherness,” and constantly asking her “what” she is rather than “who.” (Luckily, she has the perfect answer: she’s a future author extraordinaire).
I wrote Cilla for my younger self, for my younger sisters, and for the many children I’ve met who face the struggles and questions I did. I wanted to offer the same affirmation that Laurence Yep gave me, to recognize and honor children’s abilities to understand the complex social worlds around them.
My hope is that Cilla can hold up mirrors, while simultaneously helping to reshape windows. I grew up with books that offered me resonance but did so in mainly homogenous worlds, providing windows that seemed to equate whiteness with “universal.” With Cilla, I want to add to the growing number of children’s books that center characters of color, acknowledging that race shapes daily experiences and senses of self, while also showing how those experiences should be labelled as universal and human, as important a window (and as good a story) as any other.
I just finished my latest re-reading of The Thief of Hearts (I sprung for the original hardback on Amazon — out of print but worth every penny). As I was about to close the book, the last line of the acknowledgements jumped out to me, just as the cover image had grabbed me all those years ago.
As he reflects on a changing Chinatown and the changing Chinese-American community, Yep writes: “Living in San Francisco and visiting schools, I can see that there is a new generation growing up with its own unique questions, when we have only started to answer the old ones.”
I don’t know if The Thief of Hearts gave me any answers, or if Cilla provides any either. But I do know that at 10 years old, a book that saw the questions of my identity and told me it was okay to explore them in an all their richness and depth, changed me profoundly. I can only hope that Cilla helps some reader, somewhere, find space to do the same, and permission to build and explore their own unique questions — questions that matter, that are seen, and that are worthy of every kind of story.
About Susan Tan
Susan Tan has lived many places in her life, but calls Concord, Massachusetts, home. She grew up in a mixed-race family, and, like Cilla Lee-Jenkins, had very little hair until the age of five.
After studying at Williams College, she earned her PhD from the University of Cambridge, where she studied children’s literature. She currently lives in Somerville, enjoys frequent trips to Chinatown to eat tzuck sang, and teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire is her first book.
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