By Angelina Li ’23
Professor’s Soo Hong’s Mother-Daughter Book Club: Conversations that Challenge and Embrace Asian American Representation in Children’s Literature
As the Chair of the Department of Education at Wellesley College, Professor Soo Hong focuses on the relationship between schools and the communities they serve as well as the role of family and community in school transformation. Prior to her entry into academia, Soo was an elementary school teacher frustrated with the paucity of Asian American narratives in the curriculum. As an educator and a mother, she wanted to involve her daughter in conversations of importance to the Asian American community. These conversations found a home when Soo started an Asian American mother-daughter book club.
The book club began when her daughter was in second grade and, for nearly a decade now, meets monthly to read and discuss literature centered on Asian American families. When I sat down with Soo, I asked her about the role the book club has played in cultivating critical thought about mainstream narratives. Soo’s answers shed light on how Asian American representation in children’s literature has grown to be more nuanced and accessible, and with that, so have the book club’s conversations evolved. Her story shares the lessons both mothers and daughters learned about the Asian American family along their journey.
How did your experience as an educator lead you to start the mother-daughter book club? What sort of personal experiences were you thinking of? What goals did you have in mind?
Books about Asian American families were just about nonexistent when I was an elementary school teacher, and they certainly were nearly nonexistent when I was growing up. When I became a mother, I wanted to make sure that we had a collection of books that represented diverse Asian American kids and families. It comes from a personal space as I try to create a world that is very different for my students and my children than what I had growing up. I knew that not only are books important for kids to read—and to read with families—but that they are also critical springboards for discussions about social life and cultural issues. As an elementary school teacher, I recognize how significant it was for kids to see themselves, their families, and their communities in what they read, and I could not assume that they would get such exposure in school. At the same time, I understood how meaningful it was for kids to be able to talk with other children about issues that concerned their own communities and identities across texts.
What are the sort of conversations that you would have in the book club?
A couple years into our book club, in a conversation with my daughter about book choices, she said, “I don’t think the books are about kids like me.”
I was taken aback.“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s always stories about kids who came from another country and have funny sounding names that kids in their class can’t pronounce. They don’t speak English well or their parents don’t speak English. They’re writing letters to their grandmother who lives in Korea. I don’t really relate to that. My name is Lauren, I was born in Boston, I speak English just fine, my parents speak English, and my grandmother speaks English.”
My daughter was thinking critically about the stories that we had brought into the girls’ lives through the book club. As parents, we felt so grateful to have stories where the kids and their families look like ours that we didn’t realize that we were not reading stories about kids who were like our daughters. We had a really interesting conversation that month.
What have both mothers and daughters learned from that conversation?
Looking critically at the some of the books we read in the book club, we realized that the publishing industry wants to have stories about us as foreigners—we were presented with a certain singular narrative about what it means to be an Asian American. Even though we have representation, there was no authentic diversity in the kinds of stories that are shared. This was a really important learning moment as we realized that the girls were right: we were reading stories that had kids who looked like them, but their family lives or stories are actually quite different. Each step along our journey has given us an opportunity to have conversations about what it means to live in a world where we encounter prejudice. As related themes came up in the books, we asked our daughters: do you read these kinds of stories at school, and if not, why? How does that make you feel? I can’t change what my daughters’ teachers assign her to read in history or English classes, but I can teach her to be a critical participant and know that these are not the only stories that are meaningful. It’s really valuable to teach our kids to see what they learn in school as incomplete and flawed, nurturing them to be critical consumers of the curriculum that they’re fed everyday.
Apart from the daughters not being able to relate to the immigrant experience portrayed in some of the texts you read, there are any other points of differences between what mothers thought and what daughters thought?
There was a time when we were reading a lot of books about oppression, whether that was Korean kids growing up under Japanese occupation or about the harsh treatment of Asian American kids in schools. As parents, we always tried to bring in stories that addressed issues of power, privilege and oppression, and we felt it was important that we discussed colonization, oppression, and racism against Asian Americans. While I think the mothers would all agree that these topics were crucial, there was a period of time when we felt like the girls were feeling overburdened by stories of oppression. It was tiring and exhausting. It was some kind of labor to know that history. And it really taught us that we had to find a good balance. We realized that it’s important to find teen romance novels or stories about parents who are strict to younger siblings—the kind of lighter, day-to-day experiences that our daughters would relate to. A couple of the girls in our book club are also biracial, and we looked for stories that opened up our minds about what it means to be Asian American. The girls have always taught us that we need to be really thoughtful and open-minded as they demand diversity in our book selection.
Do you think the publishing industry has changed to allow for greater diversity of representation in children’s literature? If so, how?
A lot of books, when the girls were younger, were historical fiction—they were nearly always World War II or harsh immigration stories. In the past four or five years, as the girls have wanted to explore different kinds of narratives, it has not been as hard to find books that are about Asian American kids being kids. This doesn’t mean to say that the Asian American identity is erased in those books, but that the identity is not the front and centerpiece of the narrative. The entire plot does not revolve around being Asian American and having an Asian American family, but around regular kids who go through regular kid experiences, such as friendship struggles, losing a parent, or being bullied in school. It just so happens that an Asian American kid is the protagonist. I feel like those books were harder to find when we first started the book club a little less than a decade ago.
What has been your favorite (or a particularly memorable title) that was a part of the book club? What made it so great?
One of my favorite books, among those we have read over the years, is Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. It served as a significant milestone for us, because the girls were really wanting to read something about Asian/Asian-American kids of substance. We had discovered that authors and publishers were not yet willing to have new released books about Asian American kids that really delved into their lives deeply.
Another reason why this was such a memorable experience is that we had the opportunity to see the production of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon at the Wheelock Family Theater. We packed two rows in the audience with our families in attendance. It was quite an experience to see the girls embrace the story and then be able to see it presented front and center on the theater stage. A few years later, Grace Lin came to Wellesley to give a talk on what it means to create children’s literature that serves as a mirror onto the lives of children of color. Two of the girls in the book club (my daughter and her friend Emily) made it out to that event to listen to her speak, and I know they were moved to hear Ms. Lin’s story.
The girls were so captivated by Where the Mountain Meets the Moon because it was such a deep account of a strong girl whose life was complex and changing, and it was also the first time that they encountered a fantasy book that was rooted in non-western narratives (in this case, Chinese folktales). The novel challenged their notions about genre, identity, and what it meant to create books for and about Asian American kids.
Interview has been edited for clarity.