Reflecting Reality: Visual Representation of Racial Diversity in Children’s Literature in the United States by Emily Jiang

EmilyJiang-AuthorPhoto-CroppedI could give a glowing introduction of Emily (who is amazing) and her debut SUMMONING THE PHOENIX, illustrated by the equally wonderful April Chu.

Frankly though, I think Emily’s words speak for themselves. Having said that, Emily is amazing and an a fabulous advocate for diversity in children’s literature. It’s always a pleasure talk to her. Follow Emily on Twitter if you don’t already do so, and make sure to add SUMMONING THE PHOENIX to your shelves!


Originally, I had envisioned all my characters in Summoning the Phoenix to be Asian because it is an illustrated picture book about Chinese music. It seemed to be a logical decision, mapping the ethnicities of the children in my book to match with the ethnicity of the music they’re playing.


Art by April Chu of “Painting with Sound”, a poem about the guzheng by Emily Jiang

However, this decision, this assumption that only Asian children would be interested in Chinese music, does not truly reflect the reality of my country, the United States of America. In the United States, children of all ethnicities play music from all different cultures. In the United States, many Asian American children, especially Chinese American children, learn musical instruments that originated from Europe. It’s now a stereotype, the image of an Asian American child playing the violin or the piano. So why must all children who play Chinese musical instruments look Asian? Regardless of the cultural origins, isn’t music meant for everyone?

My book Summoning the Phoenix is written in English by an American author, illustrated by an American illustrator, published by an American publisher. All words are written using the English alphabet, and there is not a single published Chinese character in the entire book; the only obvious Chinese terms are the names of the instruments. While my big dream is for my book to find international readers and someday see my book translated into other languages (especially Chinese), it’s important for me to clarify that Summoning the Phoenix is an American book that happens to be about Chinese music and is originally intended for American readers.


Art by April Chu of “Magical Melody”, a poem about the xiao by Emily Jiang (Note the birds are mostly Western birds familiar to most American audiences)

With this in mind, let’s talk facts and statistics about the current and historical state of traditional children’s book publishing in the United States and how that’s impacting my intended American young readers.

Last month The New York Times published “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” by Walter Dean Myers and “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” by Christopher Myers. Both personal essays powerfully pointed to the need for more diversity in children’s books in the United States, and the statistic they both quoted was “Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people.” (statistic from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin)

Last year my current publisher Lee & Low published an article “Why Hasn’t the Number of Multicultural Books Increased in Eighteen Years?” In this article Lee & Low also used statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and made this chart that shows that while the population of people of color in the United States has risen to 37% as of 2012, the number of new traditionally published children’s books by and/or about people of color has stagnated at roughly 10% over the past eighteen years. The US census projects that by 2060, the percentage of “minority” populations will be 57% of the United States. “The US is projected to become a majority-“minority” nation in 2043.” Clearly the children’s book publishing industry in the US is not keeping up with the changing population of their young American readership.

Childrens Books Infographic 18 24 V3

Here’s another more immediate statistic. My acquiring editor Renee Ting wrote an article “Writing Race: Reflecting the Modern World” that stated another fact from U.S. Census Bureau: “as of July, 2011, white babies no longer comprise of the majority of births in the United States.” Therefore, right now as of 2014, our American-born three-year old children are more diverse than ever. Hopefully their parents are already reading books to them, and in a few more years, these children, our children, will start reading books on their own. Considering the needs of the newest generation of Americans and assuming the American publishing statistics remain somewhat similar to those quoted by Lee & Low in 2013 (which is highly possible since traditional publishing typically takes an average of two years to get an accepted manuscript turned into a book that can be purchased on the book shelf), the issues are pretty obvious:

We need more books where an American non-white child is the protagonist, not the sidekick. We need more books where children from underrepresented populations can see themselves as the center of the story.

Shouldn’t the American children depicted in American books reflect the growing racial diversity of the United States?

This is the epiphany I had almost two years ago, right after I had completed the revision of my manuscript that my editor was going to send to my illustrator. So I asked my editor if it would be okay to ask the illustrator to make the kids ethnically diverse with an emphasis on Asian children. Luckily, I had made a conscious choice before writing the poems to focus on the child’s relationship to music rather than to ethnic identity. This gave the illustrator even more freedom to choose each child’s appearance according to race, age, and gender.

I could not have predicted most of April’s choices in illustrating racially diverse characters, yet she made it all work. With the illustrator’s permission, I’m sharing a selection of April Chu’s art from Summoning the Phoenix.


Art by April Chu of “Friendly Competition”, a poem about the suona by Emily Jiang

I love how the best friends are Asian and black.


Art by April Chu of “The Face of My Ruan”, a poem about the ruan by Emily Jiang

In addition to this being mixed race child sitting on a lily pad, I love how the gender is ambiguous.


Art by April Chu of “Sounds of My Muyu”, a poem about the muyu by Emily Jiang

This blonde kid might be a tiny percent Asian, but definitely looks white.


Art by April Chu of the poem “Being Backstage”

When you look at them all together, these kids are just having a grand time being backstage.

I encourage people to rethink their assumptions:

  • authors & illustrators & filmmakers & game designers when creating their characters
  • editors & agents when they consider manuscripts to acquire
  • sales and marketing & booksellers when they consider how to sell a book
  • teachers & librarians when they consider books to give to their students and child patrons
  • people in general when they buy books, recommend books, give books away, review or blog about books

Now when I tell people about Summoning the Phoenix and how it’s about Chinese music, I’ve lost count how many well-intentioned people have told me, “I know a Chinese immersion school, and you should visit them” or “I know this family from China and they would love your book.” I’m grateful for their kind referrals, since they are going out of their way to help me. At the same time, I’m going to share my answer that I gave to my publisher Lee & Low after they had acquired Shen’s and asked me “Who would be interested in my book?”

  • People interested in Chinese culture & history & myth
  • People who are musicians
  • People who love poetry for kids
  • People who are interested in multicultural representation & diversity
  • People who love April Chu’s amazing art (which, in my opinion, should be everyone because April is brilliant and her art transcends language)

My list may seem quite specific, at first glance, but it boils down to this simple statement:

Everyone can enjoy my book about Chinese music, regardless of cultural background and/or ethnicity, because Chinese music can be enjoyed by everyone.

Recently I met the wonderful Tomie dePaola who clearly states that he always illustrates a wide range of ethnic characters in his children’s books. He seemed surprised when I informed him that he’s progressive and not everyone thinks like him. I wish more creators would think about visually about diversity like Tomie dePaola and April Chu, so that we can see the very real diversity of our communities reflected in the artwork and stories intended for our children. So ALL our children can see themselves in a book.

The obvious need for more books featuring diverse characters is attracting more and more attention, slowly but surely, and the children’s publishing world must adapt or something else will take its place to meet the needs of our future generations. Personally, I cannot wait for the day when what we now consider as diversity is, just simply, called reality.




All art by the fantastic April Chu.



#WeNeedDiverseBooks at SUMMONING THE PHOENIX’s launch party! 


One Response to Reflecting Reality: Visual Representation of Racial Diversity in Children’s Literature in the United States by Emily Jiang

  1. […]  On a personal note, today is my first contribution to DiversiFYA!  My article is called: “Reflecting Reality: Visual Representation of Racial Diversity in Children’s Literature …  It sounds rather academic, but it’s not.  It’s more an homage to my illustrator […]