Empowerment Through Representation: Race and Ethnicity in Children’s Picturebooks

Written by Faye Dorcas Yung //

The release of Pixar’s latest movie Coco at the turn of the year reignited the discussion on representation and cultural diversity in mainstream media. Its record-breaking box office results in Mexico are a good illustration of the attraction of relevance—seeing a life story one is familiar with on the big screen strikes a resonance in people’s hearts. Representation of one’s subjectivity—“my way of life as the norm”—is empowering; it is also refreshing for international audiences, as we are presented with a less common subjectivity.

This leads us to reflect: When we read a book, watch a movie, play a video game, or encounter any form of narrative, how often do we take a step back and wonder whose story we are enjoying? Who is looking? Who is being looked at? Whose perspectives are we presented with? Whose experiences do we identify with as the story unfolds?

Ponder for a moment and you will realize that these questions are actually very political: it deals with how we see human beings, how we relate to each other, and how we see the world. The association between politics and children’s literature is often overlooked because most people have a romanticized ideal of childhood innocence. However, it does not stop children’s literature from becoming an ideological battlefield. Its dual purposes—to entertain and to educate—make children’s literature a potent vehicle to be used to influence younger generations. Every social movement and every camp in identity politics has corresponding children’s books to champion their beliefs. For instance, the debate on diverse representations has gone on for decades—particularly in Anglophone countries, where the multiculturalism movement receives more public attention. People have come to understand that the presence of a multi-ethnic cast does not imply diversity; instead, the question is whether different subjectivities are present in a bigger body of works.

In 1962, Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day, featuring a black boy having fun in the snow, was seen as a huge breakthrough toward more diverse representations in children’s literature. At the turn of the millennium, Norton Juster and Chris Raschka’s The Hello, Goodbye Windows (2005) and Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie (2008) feature a two-generation multiethnic family. These picturebooks are just a few examples of the growing number of children’s books in which the lives of people of different ethnicities take center stage, while the racial and cultural differences recede to the background and become irrelevant to the story.

In East Asia, the children’s literature scene is lagging behind in reflecting the diversity of their peoples. In the periphery, however, are two examples of the few that go against the trend. One is a picture book project by Dr. Jessie Huang and the Truku kids, an aboriginal people in Taiwan; the other is a picturebook from Hong Kong.

Where is Mom 00

In the English-Truku bilingual picturebook Where Is Mom? (2016), the protagonist unveils three anxious days in her life. The nights in between she spends with an empty stomach and a worrying heart, because her mother has not come home. Her mother is out in the mountains collecting qwarux (yellow rotang palm); the protagonist imagines all sorts of mountain animals attacking her mother. She even goes out to search for her mother with her black little dog. She and her younger siblings have gone two nights without dinner. 

In the end, the mother comes home briefly on the third morning. The protagonist holds her mother’s hands (wounded from picking qwarux), comforted by her safe return, and she sees her off as she hurries down the hill to the market to sell her plants. The pictures also tell the story of this family’s everyday life; they capture their very own backdrop of their homes in the mountains. Even the dog is colored in dark brown, which is the most common shade of Taiwanese mongrels.

This Festival is Spring 000

In This Festival is Spring (2017), a Hong Kong mother and son walk the reader through the typical street views of the city during Chinese New Year. The son asks his mother what the point of Chinese New Year is, and he is unhappy with her “textbook” answers. The mother explains that the Chinese New Year is also called the Spring Festival, celebrating the arrival of spring after a long bitter winter: the melting of the snow, the budding of the new green leaves and flowers, and the awakening of hibernating animals. But the son points out there is no snow in Hong Kong, and the trees are always green. Even the turtle at home has been active throughout winter. Together, they walk the reader through a series of scenery unique to their home town: from the spring drizzles and the seasonal mist blanketing Victoria Harbor and the skyscrapers to the orange street bins filled with plastic bags used for holding dripping umbrellas in shopping malls. What this picturebook does is it subverts the canonical literary descriptions of the changing seasons, often written in a cultural capital of a different climate in another time, and acknowledges the humid spring air the readers are breathing in.  

Both the Truku and Hong Kong examples present their own subjectivities: the sceneries they see, the air that they breathe in, the stories that are routine to their lives and their language. It is the most gentle act of self-determination against the much more powerful and dominating grand narrative. As Jesus said, recognizing the power of story against a patriarchal grand narrative of His time: “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”(Matthew 26:13, NIV). All people deserve to have their story told.

Works Cited

Huang, Jessie and Kids. Where is Mom? Truku translated by Ikuy Sring, The Storytellers, 2016.
Keats, Ezra Jack. The Snowy Day. Viking, 1962.
Norton, Juster. The Hello, Goodbye Windows. Illustrated by Chris Raschka, Michael Di Capua, 2005.
Norton, Juster. Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie. Illustrated by Chris Raschka, Michael Di Capua, 2008.
Wong, Nga-man. This Festival is Spring (這個節日是春天). Illustrated by Ma Sun-gai, Cottontree, 2017.


Faye Dorcas Yung teaches in a university after getting a PhD in children’s literature criticism. Her academic pursuit has extended her life-long immersion in stories to discover, recover, rediscover and uncover many stories about different people in different times. She is still trying to fathom the profound implications of stories on people, and the immense damage to those in the absence of stories. Her next dream is to help the children she’s met in Takeo Province, Cambodia to write and publish their own stories.

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