On Children’s Books and Race Privilege

Last week, I blogged about Timmy and Tammy, a new series of “Let Me Read” books by Ruth Wan-Lau and illustrated by Eliz Ong.

Today, on Quartz, I expanded that post into a longer essay about children’s books and race privilege in Singapore. Look past the headline and the photo—those were determined by the publisher!

An excerpt:

Years ago, I wrote about how I would search the library shelves of my New Jersey elementary school in the hopes of finding a character that looked like me in children’s books. One day my librarian handed me a copy of The Jungle Book. Though I had never revisited Kipling’s India—it wasn’t about the India my parents knew and loved or the India that I frequently visited on long, hot summer vacation—I remained an insatiable reader throughout my childhood and became a children’s book author myself, telling stories that I would have liked to have read as a young person.

Now, as a parent living in Singapore and raising a third culture kid who happens to be categorized as one of Singapore’s “official” ethnicities or “races,” I had expected my child’s journey of discovery to be easier than mine had been. Given that nearly 9% of Singaporeans and permanent residents trace their ancestry, wholly or in part, to the Indian subcontinent, I’d expected more visible signs and celebrations of Indianness. Moreover, Singapore touts its vibrant and diverse cultural heritage and has often prided itself on being a good example of multiculturalism at work, even though it is nearly 74% ethnically Chinese. So badly, I had wanted my child to experience diversity as I never had.

As I discover more books for young readers, though, especially of realistic stories set in Singapore, I cannot help but notice, and be saddened by, how few commercially-published fiction titles feature non-Chinese children as protagonists in contemporary settings. This speaks to a hierarchy of race that is wholly apparent to those of us who are not at the top. These books are peppered with the occasional non-Chinese Asian character, but these characters represent “diversity” only on a visual level. The characters hardly make it past their function as a visual supplement or plot device.

Read the entire piece here.