Our RWW Interviews series continues today with a conversation between Sam Bloom and Sarah Park Dahlen. Sarah is an associate professor in the Master of Library and Information Science Program at St. Catherine University and an advocate for diverse books for youth. Her dissertation examined representations of adoption, specifically adoption of children from Korea, in books for children and teens. She is married to an adoptee from Korea. She is not an adoptee herself. (Note: Sam is a White adoptive father of two Black children.) #DiversityJedi #Ravenclaw
Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your insights with us!
Can you share your origin story? How did you get started in this work?
In the early 2000s, I was in graduate school at UCLA – it was a Master of Asian American Studies program – and I had always loved children’s literature growing up. One day I went to Border’s, and I found a picture book called Smoky Night. It shocked me because it took place during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, and my dad owned a grocery store at the time, and I remember so much about the violence, about the fear, the conversations that my parents and a lot of our family and friends were having. A lot of people I knew – Korean Americans – had businesses in Los Angeles. Some of them burned clear to the ground. We were more fortunate; our business suffered I think only $7,000-$8,000 worth of damage, which is incredible given how much other people’s properties were destroyed. But my dad’s store was in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It wasn’t along the main corridors where a lot of the damage was. So anyway, the protagonist [in Smoky Night] is a brown or black character – it’s not entirely clear the way the illustrations are done – but definitely not white. But who is also clearly not white is Mrs. Kim, the Korean store owner across the way. And the protagonist talks about how he doesn’t really know her very well, she speaks this other language… and it blew my mind that there was a picture book about the L.A. Riots! Obviously [Smoky Night] was not from a Korean American’s perspective, so I wondered: are there children’s books about the L.A. Riots from a Korean American perspective? When I started looking, the closest thing I found was Marie Lee’s young adult novel Saying Goodbye, in which her protagonist goes off to college at Harvard, and there she meets a boy whose parents owned a store in Los Angeles. It was a little bit removed, but that was the closest thing I found at the time. In the course of doing that research I found other children’s books that depicted Korean people. I was like, “There are Korean people in children’s books?!” It was amazing to me! And then I learned that [in 2002] Linda Sue Park had won the Newbery for A Single Shard, and An Na had won the Printz for A Step from Heaven. All of these things came together at the same time while I was in my graduate program. Originally, I had wanted to be a high school history teacher. But when I discovered these children’s books, I decided I wanted to study children’s literature – Korean American children’s literature – instead.
After that I had to go and get a PhD, so I did that. I went to Illinois and then I got hired as an assistant professor.
You took Debbie’s Reese’s class [while at the University of Illinois], right?
I did! One of the classes I took was called the Politics of Children’s Literature, and that was taught by Debbie Reese. Even though I had been an Ethnic Studies major before, it was my first time learning from someone who is an American Indian about all of the issues related to American Indians in children’s literature, and pop culture in general, because we talked about a lot of things – you know these stereotypes and misrepresentations [in children’s literature] don’t happen in a vacuum. At the time, Debbie was very involved in the fight against the mascot. [UPDATE/related news: the U of I recently banned the “war chant” during sporting events.] She was very outspoken, very vocal about it, and we talked about it a lot in class. I’m ashamed to admit how much I didn’t know about American Indians as I was growing up, and in my schooling, and how much I had to unlearn and relearn and how much I’m still learning – because there’s still so much that we should know.
We didn’t become close friends until later. It was a few years before we spent more time together and became more friends and colleagues. At the time it was very much student and professor.
How cool that you two go back so far! Okay, this next question is in reference to the children’s literature world in general. What, in your mind, has changed over time?
There were not as many children’s books about Asian Americans that explore so many things (and there are still a lot of topics that aren’t talked about). I think we’ve seen an explosion of Asian American books – I mean, that BookRiot article [about books with Asian American protagonists]… I thought that was just amazing to have such a strong list. But when I was starting, I read people like Junko Yokota, Lorraine Dong, Violet Harada, Rocío Davis – Asian Americans who are scholars of Asian American children’s literature. To be able to name them on one hand and say, “These are the foremothers who I respect and look up to”… there are more now, and I wish there were even more people doing this work, because there’s so much more to say about it. I think we are still not seeing enough intersectionality. There are so few books that depict Asian Americans with different gender identities, sexual orientations, those who are differently able in various ways… I think we’re a little bit better about socioeconomic diversity. But there are also still an awful lot of immigrant stories, and not all of us are immigrants now. (I mean, there are still a lot of immigrants but that’s obviously changing in this political environment.) But a lot of times we’re still perceived as immigrants, and if we have a lot of children’s books that depict us only as immigrants who don’t speak English, then that’s a problem. So it would be nice to see more intergenerational children’s books, or children’s books written about the later generations. I think Laurence Yep does a really good job with that, because some of his novels take us way back in time, but then also a lot of them are very much set in the present and they’re the children of people who have been here for generations.
I was talking to someone recently at Bao Phi’s A Different Pond book launch party about intergenerational stories and transracial adoption. For example, Sun Yung Shin, who is transracially adopted and has a biracial son, wrote Cooper’s Lesson because she was thinking about what it is like for the biracial child of an Asian person (though Cooper’s mother is not an adoptee). There are so few books with multiracial Asian characters (see Amina Chaudhri’s research). And I’m trying to think if there are any children’s books that depict not the adopted person as the protagonist, but their children. What kind of conversations might happen there? “Mom, how come your parents are also Korean, but Dad, how come your parents are white?” So we have these books where we can explain transracial adoption through the eyes of the protagonist, but we don’t have books where we can explain it to the children of adoptees who are now… some of them are in their 50s, and 40s… and they have children, and grandchildren, and we need resources to help explain adoption to them. So the literature is going to take time to catch up to our realities.
I think it was in 2014 that the CCBC’s numbers where the books by but not about [Asian Americans] eclipsed [the books by *and* about Asian Americans]… I think that’s really interesting, we’re the only group out of the four groups where the numbers are different in that way. I’ve heard from a lot of different Asian Americans what they think about that. For example, at the 2017 Asian American Literature Festival Ellen Oh said Asian American authors are told, “We don’t want to hear your Asian American story, that doesn’t sell…” until it does, right?! And so a lot of people will write about other things until they can get their foot in the door. But we still have so many stories that are not yet told about our communities… I was trying to think, there are so many books now that depict gentrification in some way or another, like The Education of Margo Sanchez, The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island… There are a lot of things that have happened in Asian American history that we don’t have a lot of books about – the fall of the I-Hotel in San Francisco, the founding of Ethnic Studies (which is celebrating its 50th anniversary next year)… we also need books about the murder of Vincent Chin, which was a huge, huge thing in our community. I’ve been talking to poets… to different people like, “Do you think we can have a book about Vincent Chin, what would that look like?” We have a lot of community activists, a lot of people who are legends in politics and education that we don’t have biographies on. It’s really exciting, the Rad American Women books and also the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls… those collections are really diverse. I like having them for my daughter because where else am I going to find these biographies? I think we have a lot (relatively speaking) of biographies about Maya Lin, but not so much about some of the other people who have done really important work in this country. (And I think I’m going off on a tangent now!)
That’s okay! It’s really embarrassing to me… you’re talking about some really important things in history. And I have not heard of so many of these people or events you’re talking about. So I would certainly appreciate books on those people and events!
Tell us about your research in the representation of adoption in children’s literature. What questions are you asking? What have you learned so far?
My research was specifically on representations of Korean adoption in American children’s and young adult literature. And one of the big questions that came out of that is, “Why aren’t more of the books authored by Korean adoptees themselves?” And I say that very deliberately, in contrast to asking the question, “Why aren’t more Korean adoptees writing?” Because they are writing: they are writing memoirs, and poetry, and novels, and making documentaries, but very few are writing children’s literature. When I did my initial research, out of approximately 50 books, I think 2 of them were written or illustrated by adopted Koreans, and more than 20 were written by white adoptive parents… specifically mothers. Today we’re having these conversations about #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices, and I didn’t have that language when I was writing my dissertation. But we did have phrases like “insider/outsider authorship,” and this is a clear case of outsider authorship; even if the mothers are within the constellation of adoptive families, it still is not the same as having a book written by a Korean adoptee. I also wondered what kinds of stories were being told, and how different people were being represented, and one of the things I found was that birth mothers, if they were present at all, were largely written out of the narrative. Or their mothering was sort of just discursively taken out.
One example: in the first book of a young adult quartet, the [Korean adoptee] protagonist said she started a birth search, but then she hit a wall and so she stopped, but you know, whatever, because her birth mother was “probably a prostitute” anyway, “most [birth mothers] were…” which is a really terrible thing to say of anybody (and particularly about Korean birth mothers because a lot of them were raped, a lot of them had no choice in placing their children for adoption, in a lot of cases the children were taken away from them, a lot of times poverty pushes women into prostitution when that isn’t something they would have naturally chosen for themselves. A lot of Korean female adoptees are told that, if they had not been adopted into their white American family, it’s likely that they would have also ended up as prostitutes in Korea, which is also not a nice thing to say). So anyway, I was just appalled when I read that, and as a reader I would not have wanted to finish reading [the book]… but as a scholar I had to! By the fourth book the white adoptive mother, who is a lovely character, has passed away, so that sort of opened space because around the same time, shortly after, the birth mother in Korea makes contact with the protagonist, they exchange letters, and the birth mother comes and visits. And it turns out she was not a prostitute, she was a well-educated women who found herself pregnant and decided that it wasn’t viable for her to keep the child. But like I said earlier, her mothering abilities had been taken away discursively. They’re having this conversation about relationships, and the protagonist says something like, “I’d rather think of you like a sister, I’ve already had a mother.” And then the birth mother says something like, “That’s fine, I would like that,” but then she’s not called a mother, or perceived to be a mother. Relationships with birth parents and adoptees are really complicated, and everyone has to choose for themselves how they are going to navigate them – they could change over time. I have a lot of Korean adoptee friends, many who have sort of “smooth” relationships with their birth families, but I also have a lot of friends who have very up-and-down, “We’re talking”/“We’re not talking” relationships… every adoptee has to navigate for themselves how that relationship is going to look. But when it’s a pattern in American children’s literature and young adult literature, where the birthmother is discursively taken out of the text, or the birth mother is revealed to be deceased, or someone says, “Well, I’m never going to find her anyway,” as in the case with We Adopted You, Benjamin Koo… What is different from the norm: in Kimchi and Calamari, the protagonist says, “Maybe I can go to Korea when I get older and do a birth search.” The reality is that with most agencies in Korea, you can’t do a search until you’re 18 anyway, so that’s realistic. But he leaves open the possibility that he can go to Korea and search for his mom there. I’d like to see more opportunities like that presented, as opposed to foreclosing the opportunities all together, or if there is a reunion: “But you’re not my mom!”
Something interesting (and not in a good way) is that a lot of Korean adoptees in real life are named Kim because Kim is a very common Korean last name. So when white adoptive parents adopt a kid named, say, (first name) Jin-Yong (last name) Kim, they’re going to call the kid Kim because they think, “Oh, that’s also an American name.” And so then in children’s literature, we have something like seven characters out of the fifty characters or so are named Kim. I thought that was interesting… the way that is depicted. I once went to a Korean adoptee conference, with about 500 adoptees from around the world, and I looked through the program, and there were about 15 or 20 Kims.
And then there were the factual errors: for example, in the Diary of a Teenage Girl series, the birth mother said she was from the city “Puson,” but it was spelled incorrectly; there are a couple of acceptable ways to spell it (Pusan and Busan), and [the author] doesn’t use either one. And then there was the situation when the birth mother was writing to her daughter and she’s talking about the location of the city, she says it’s next to the Sea of Japan. Now, any Korean person who knows anything about being Korean, is not going to say “Sea of Japan” – it’s really contentious! Koreans call it the East Sea. Those two things signal that the author did not have a deep understanding of either Korean adoption or Korean culture. I mean, enough about Korean adoption to throw in that stereotype about the prostitute mother, right?! But not enough to deal with it in a more critical way. And people could say, “Yeah, but she turned out NOT to be a prostitute!” But you have to read book 4 to figure that out!
In all the work you do, what are you most proud of?
I don’t know how to answer this question!
Well… the infographic that David Huyck, Molly Beth Griffin and I worked on together, in consultation with K.T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Edith Campbell, and Ebony Thomas. I think we produced something that was really useful to a lot of people in pushing conversations about the lack of diversity in children’s lit. And I name all those people who worked on it together because it truly was a group effort to get that out there.
I’m also proud of the forthcoming journal that we’re doing – Research on Diversity in Youth Literature. I’m working with a team of really thoughtful and intelligent and passionate people, and I’m excited about the interventions we can make using that journal.
I’m really proud of my students. I teach both a Library Materials for Children class and a specific Social Justice in Children’s/Young Adult Literature class. You know, some students are required to take the (first class), but then there are a lot of students who elect to take the (second class), and especially this last semester I’m just really proud of the space that my class provided for my students to deal with some really hard questions and to produce work for community partners. Also, I think since coming to Minnesota, I’ve probably brought to campus a lot of authors and speakers by having personal connections with, say, Gene Yang, or Zetta Elliott or Jody Gray, or Debbie Reese, and through building these networks I was able to bring people to campus and have really important conversations with my students and community members. Almost everything we’ve done has been free and open to the public, and it’s really important to me that people have access to these conversations.
How did you get involved with the Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey?
I had been friends with Jason Low of Lee & Low for a while; we’d been in conversation about different things and I’d always supported their books. In the spring of 2015 I knew that Jason was trying to get this survey going – I’d read about it on their blog, I think. Jason thought it was important to have an external partner – maybe a researcher - manage the data, so he reached out to me and asked me if I’d help administer the survey. I mean, I don’t know if he went through 50 different people before coming to me, it’s very possible… But when he asked me – and I really strongly believe in the survey, I believe we need to have data to back us up – I talked to my dean about it and she gave me her blessing. From that point onward, my graduate assistant and I were the only people with access to the survey. Jason would make a connection, and then send me an email, and then I would work with the publisher or review journal to gather the data. So that’s how that came to be.
I think a lot of things that happen in this industry are about relationships. I believe if you’ve established relationships then you’ll give opportunities to other people, and other people will give opportunities to you, and then together we can do a lot of great work. And that was a LOT of work, it was a lot of data for my graduate assistant and me to comb through. Jason wrote in the final report that there was a segment of the data that was compromised. Someone hacked a portion of the data and we were able to cut that out, but it was really infuriating to have a project that was so important be messed up like that. Because of that work, some publishers have made significant changes, and it will be exciting to see if another survey is done in the future, and what publishing looks like then.
How do you stay motivated or promote self-care when facing frustration or pushback?
I recently discovered – I think Ebony or someone else had posted them – some podcasts by therapists who are women of color. So I’ve started listening to those and that has been really helpful.
Also because I’m a person of faith, I tend to be hopeful. That keeps me grounded; I think without my faith I wouldn’t be able to survive all this terrible stuff that is going on around us!
The other thing is having a community of support. Over the years I’ve really learned who my friends and allies are, particularly in this community. I check in with Edi and Ebony and Debbie every single day, and then I also have conversations going on with other women – women of color, queer women. We just really try to lift each other up and support each other in the work that we’re doing, so that’s been really helpful. Before social media it must have been harder to do this kind of work together, or to at least have the immediacy of communication! I’m thankful I’m doing the work in this era and not in an earlier one!
And then things like chocolate (though it doesn’t always help, sometimes it gives me headaches), coffee helps me, being outside – I’m not outside as much as I should be and I’m not exercising as much as I should. And spending time with people away from some of the things that are going on. And then when I come home, Jeff listens to me rant about a lot of different things, and that’s helpful too! (laughter). So yay Jeff!
And I think knowing that I don’t have to fight all the battles, and also I don’t have to fight them alone. For instance, I saw a lot of people post that Vulture piece [about the “toxicity” of YA Twitter] on Facebook. Almost every single time I was like, “I’m not going to get into it… I’m not going to get into it…” because I don’t think it’s always going to be a very productive conversation. But then one of my former students posted it – and it turns out I had actually misread something she wrote – but when I challenged her on liking that article her response was that we were learning together… so I think knowing sometimes it’s going to be productive and sometimes it’s not, and knowing when to engage and when not to engage is really important. But yeah, with that one I didn’t engage too much publicly, but I did talk about it a lot privately with my friends and my colleagues.
And I think the word “motivated” is really important too. Because we’re motivated by the desire to have good books for all children. And particularly good books for children who haven’t had a whole lot of good books. That has to be our primary focus. I think when we derail the conversation and it becomes more about winning, that’s not productive. And Debbie always talks about how the reason why we’re doing this work, we’re thinking of the kids we’re giving these books to, and that has to be our motivation. So for me, that’s a really big deal. And I talk about the fact that when I was a kid I didn’t have these books, but now my daughter has these SHELVES… not only of Korean American [books], but all kinds of diverse books, and that’s what I want for all children. That’s one of my motivations.
What advice do you have for others looking to do equity work in the world of libraries and youth literature?
Know that it’s important. Know that it’s hard. And know that you’re not alone.
Find a community or communities that will work alongside you, that will support you, that will build you up and give you opportunities. And also, watch out for those coming up after you. Because there’s always going to be a new generation of people with energy and ideas, and we want to make sure that we’re including them and bringing them into the fold, and also protecting them because it is a vicious world out there, preparing them to face that world. I think about how in the Bible Paul discipled Timothy, and then Timothy discipled others, so making sure that you’re both a Paul and a Timothy… know who you look up to, who your role models are, who your mentors are, and also know that you’re responsible for building up the next generation. Because this fight is not going to end next year, it’s not going to end when we reach parity with the numbers, we’re going to be fighting this for a long time! So we have to build a movement that’s sustainable.