Sarah Park Dahlen was a graduate student when she first opened a children’s book that featured a Korean American character. “The protagonist was this ambiguously brown character who would look across the street at Mrs. Kim, who was clearly the Korean store owner,” Dahlen remembers. “The story was about [Mrs. Kim], but not from her perspective.”
The book was Eve Bunting’s “Smoky Night.” It explores the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which Dahlen lived through, herself the child of immigrant Korean American grocery store owners.
Reading about Mrs. Kim sparked Dahlen’s curiosity and she began to research other children’s books by and about Korean American people. She found several titles, which prompted her to feel betrayed by her childhood teachers and librarians. “As a graduate student, I was blown away. Where were these books when I was a kid?
“I grew up in a big Asian American community, so I didn’t suffer from invisibility the way people who grew up isolated in more homogenous communities did,” Dahlen explains, “but I still would have loved to see people who looked like me in children’s books.”
Dahlen changed her career course and enrolled in a PhD program, where she completed a dissertation on Korean American adoption narratives in children’s literature. She has been a professor at St. Catherine University for ten years, where she teaches courses on library and information science, children’s and young adult literature, storytelling, and social justice.
Dahlen is noted for an infographic she created (above), with illustrator David Huyck, that depicts the percentage of characters from diverse backgrounds in children’s literature. The infographic has received wide circulation inside and outside of academia. It was first created in 2015, and updated with 2018 statistics, using data compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. To increase access, Huyck applied for an unrestricted creative commons license, which allows the image to be used freely, even in books.
She also co-founded the open-access journal “Research on Diversity in Youth Literature,” based at St. Catherine University. The articles can be downloaded for free. One paper on white supremacy in Dr. Seuss books has been dowloaded over 47,000 times, including by those in the industry who published Dr. Seuss’ original work.
“More open access information — that is the way of the future, and that’s what is going to make change,” Dahlen says.
The mirror concept in the infographic comes from a 1990 article by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, titled “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” She writes that having your lived experiences mirrored fosters a self-love rooted in the knowledge that your lives and communities are worth celebrating.
Equally important is exposure to “windows” into the experiences of others. Bishop explains:
“If [children] see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world. A dangerous ethnocentrism.”
Dahlen says, “White people have a lot of mirrors. They have fewer windows. For children of color, trans children, or children who have autism, we don’t have a lot of mirrors. Or the mirrors that have been constructed for us are primarily written by people who don’t have the lived experiences that we have, so sometimes there are distortions.”
In the infographic, children who have fewer accurate representations look into small, cracked mirrors. Dahlen says the cracks represent narratives that feature stereotypes. As novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote, fewer representations also places more burden on those that do exist to impart everything about a culture, event, or history.
“We’re not looking for parity,” Dahlen says. “What we’re looking for is nuance, diversity in the underrepresented stories.” Many of the Hmong narratives that appear in children’s literature, for example, are about the refugee journey. “It starts in the camps, they fly to the U.S., they are sponsored, and they assimilate,” Dahlen explains.
It is important to have this aspect of the Hmong experience represented, but it is not the only significant thing that has happened to Hmong people. Author Kao Kalia Yang is one local writer who is helping to remedy this with her recently published picture book, “A Map Into The World,” which follows a Hmong American girl as she moves through the seasons, encountering birth and death.
“Seeing what kinds of new stories are emerging has been really exciting,” Dahlen says.
Use your purchasing power to support diverse authors and illustrators. Attend book talks with diverse storytellers. Make those reading spaces accessible. Speak with public librarians, school administrators, and teachers about what is missing in the libraries. Invite diverse authors to speak and role model for children in schools. Use social media to tell publishers what readers want to see on the shelves.