Here I Am: Celebrating Diverse Experiences in Children’s Books

Originally posted on The Loft’s Writers’ Block

One of the most serious jobs I have as a father is to get my daughter hooked on books. When I was a little boy, my father taught me how to walk to the Franklin Avenue library and back to our house, which cut down on my begging for toys and the Atari 2600 while keeping me out of gangs and other trouble in our neighborhood. It was in books that I learned that other worlds existed, and indulged (perhaps too much) in fantasizing I was someone else, somewhere else. In my dreams, I often imagined myself as white because all the characters in the books, the myths, the comic books I liked so much were almost always white. They were so unlike myself and my family: poor, alien, shouted at in the streets as Americans of all colors blamed us for the sorrow and hurt of the Vietnam War. So in my dreams I made myself white, too. Handsome, brave, heroic, perfect. Call it a nerd refugee survival mechanism.

I don’t want my daughter to go through the same struggle I did. I am constantly on the lookout for books that feature characters that look like her, her parents, or her classmates, who encompass the full array of diversity you’d expect drawing from the Phillips and Powderhorn neighborhoods in Minneapolis. While there have been some great books given and found, I was desperately looking for a book with a story that could be used as a bridge to explain to my daughter how I and her mother and her grandparents came to this country.

I stumbled on Here I Am totally by accident. Written by Patti Kim and illustrated by Sonia Sánchez, it tells the story of a young boy moving from an undisclosed Asian country with his family to New York City. He finds the place somehow overcrowded yet lonely, strange and overwhelming. His sole comfort is a red seed he finds in his pocket that allows him to dream and envision beautiful places in his imagination. One day he drops the seed from the window of his family’s apartment, and a girl happens by and picks it up. He runs out to pursue her, desperate to get his magic seed back, but soon finds himself getting lost in the good smells emanating from restaurants, pretzels sold by street vendors, people feeding birds in the street, families spending time together in the park, and finds a new friend.

There are barely any words at all. There is, however, a narrative. The images flow in ways that are linear but very creative. The pages where the boy leaves his birth country feature panels that sprawl across expansive white pages, contrasting immediately with the ones that follow in his new home in New York, its panels full of busy images chaotically crammed together. One page has staggered panels set atop a subway map, as if each panel was a train stop slightly askew, showing the confusion of those experimenting with a new country’s subway system.

This story is not exactly the same as mine. As a baby, I came to Minnesota as a refugee from war. As the youngest, I remember my father telling me stories about the war and the country we left that I was too young to remember, and at times flipping roles at night and telling my mother fairy tales in English to help her get to sleep.

But a story doesn’t have to be exactly the same as your own to be powerful. What I love about this book is that you can add whatever language you speak to the pages, or use none at all. My daughter and I like to make up words for the story together, and we sometimes take a moment to ask questions and imagine what the characters are thinking. Does the boy like the laundromat better than the bookstore? Should you feed pigeons pretzels? Should we go fishing sometime, like that child does with their father? And sometimes we go a bit deeper. The main character, I tell my daughter, was born in a different country and came to America, like your daddy, like your momma.

I don’t want to get too heavy handed with it. I just want her to know that stories like hers exist and that she doesn’t have to imagine that she is someone else in order to be valued. I want her to know she comes from somewhere real, and that I hope she gets to define for herself how important that is to her identity in the future. I want her to move away from this idea we are all taught, that her daddy internalized as a little boy and that he spent his lifetime fighting against: that whiteness is somehow universal, that white people and white stories must be centered, that we must dream our bodies as white to be seen as heroic or even just human. I want her to celebrate the many different stories, ones like hers and ones that are nothing like hers, as many existing as there are bodies in the world.

Sometimes, when we are done reading through Here I Am together, my daughter smiles and asks me to read it to her again. Ultimately that’s the best review for a children’s book I can give.

2 thoughts on “Here I Am: Celebrating Diverse Experiences in Children’s Books

  1. Hey. Love this story. I wrote an ebook called “Teach Your Child To Love Reading” at http://www.teachtolovereading. I did this because I wanted to be very deliberate in creating children who loved to read.

    In that journey it was very important to me to find books that reflected our culture, history and looks. One of my favorite books is called “Black All Around” by Patricia Hubbell. I love this book because it creates such a positive associate with blackness. It has made such a difference to combat the negative associations with blackness for my children.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

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