by Maisie Chan
Our Reflecting Realities research is an annual survey that reviews the quality and extent of ethnic minority presence in children’s literature published in the UK. In each report we provide data and analysis of the books produced and consider the extent to which the books reflect the realities, as well as, broaden the outlook of their readership. We address the shortfalls of poor portrayals and highlight examples of great books we encounter as part of the review process. In the first year of reviewing the content of these submissions we noted instances of problematic portrayals of East Asian characters and across all three cycles of reviewing submissions the volume of presence of characters of this demographic has been significantly low.
Q&A with Maisie Chan:
1. You have spoken about the damaging implications of this before and have been keen to champion high quality inclusive and representative books, what does the term Reflecting Realities mean to you?
Reflecting Realities for ESEA (East and Southeast Asians) readers means first being visible. We’ve been erased from U.K. children’s literature for a long time. Secondly, it means being shown as human beings, with flaws, but who are positive representations rather than cliches. I want to show ESEA families and characters that are loving, complex and do so with nuance, and respect for the wider community. Because we have so few books, even us Own Voices writers have to be mindful. I have felt disappointed by some of the ESEA representation I have seen especially around illustrations (slanted eyes, slits for eyes, yellow skin) and certain language used (‘oriental’, Wong being rhymed with “wrong”). I would like to see our realities reflected by people from within the demographic too.
2. Tell us about Danny Chung and what inspired you to write your new book Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths?
Eleven-year-old Danny’s world changes when his grandmother moves into his room from China. He’s not happy about it at all! The inspiration for Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths came from meeting a Chinese grandmother who arrived in the U.K aged 92. She was strong and feisty and even though she wasn’t my grandmother, I immediately warmed to her even though I couldn’t speak her dialect. I wondered about what she would do with her time and imagined her playing bingo. And the seed of the story was sown! I wanted to show a Chinese family that worked really hard, and Danny is basically a regular boy who has ups and downs with friendships and his family. It’s a relatable book whether you are ESEA or not.
3. Why do you think Danny is an important addition to the children’s literary landscape?
It’s one of the first British Chinese family middle-grade books published by a British born Chinese author. It’s about wanting to belong, how immigrants or people perceived as different face microaggressions. It also lightly touches on stereotypes of Chinese people and I was particularly happy to have two Chinese families in the book that would be contrasted. It’s come at a time when Sinophobia is at its highest in my lifetime. I think it’s very much needed in schools and homes in post-Brexit and post-Trump times.
4. Was there a particularly memorable book that shaped your early reading experiences and set you on your reading journey? What was it about this particular title(s) that appealed to you?
I think the simplest and most wonderful book I read as a child was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. It was vibrant and the double spread at the end was a stunning revelation. I also loved the pictures of food! When I first started writing for children and young people I read: Noughts and Crosses and A Monster Calls and was blown away by their storylines and depth.
5. What are some of the major influences on your work and how do you decide on your subjects?
I wanted to write books that were as accessible to working class children like Jacqueline Wilson’s books are - with that same ‘chatty’ tone. I studied Frank Cotterill Boyce’s books such as Millions and Framed. I wanted to see how he did it. He often has a specific location – Birmingham, Wales, Merseyside. A strong character voice - the main characters always learn something and so do the readers. So, in Framed you learn about artwork. In Millions, you learn about Saints. I wanted there to be something extra that readers took away with them and that became the Fibonacci Sequence, Chinese food, and little nuggets of Chinese culture. Danny Chung is set in Birmingham and the themes are things that I am concerned about.
6. What are your hopes for the future of children’s books?
I would love to see a future where it’s common to have children of all races, backgrounds and abilities represented in books, so we don’t need labels like ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’ because those things are the norm. I want to see more BESEA children’s writers and characters. That is why I am mentoring on Megaphone and also why I started Bubble Tea Writers Network so I could support and cheer on other writers. I would particularly like to see more BESEA characters on the front of books, especially picture books. I struggled to find a picture book published here that had a BESEA boy on the front cover for my friend’s baby. I want that to change.
7. Finally, do you have any new titles, books in development or projects aimed at a primary audience that you can tell us about?
I’m currently working on my second middle-grade novel for Piccadilly Press. I am interested in different kinds of families, and how young carers navigate hard times, but find the light in themselves and from others to get to the other side.
I also have Tiger Warrior: Attack of the Dragon King coming out (with Hachette July 2021) which is a chapter book series full of Chinese myths and creatures.
And I’m especially excited to be involved in The Very Merry Murder Club with Farshore.