Friday, March 23, 2012

What Diversity Means to Me - Featuring Mike Jung

First of all, thanks to all the wonderful comments on my first Diversity series post. There is still time to win a copy of Danette's book. Please leave a comment on Danette's post to win a copy.

When I started this blog series, I knew I would have to ask Mike to guest post for me for a few reasons. First of all, he is one of my ninja critique buddies. Second, my daughters began the first chapter of the Mike Jung fan club last year and at times seem more excited about his book release than mine (ahem!). Lastly, he has a fabulous middle grade book coming out this fall. And right on the cover of his debut book is his main character, Vincent Wu, an Asian American character. I remember cheering loudly with my three daughters when we first got a peek at Mike's cover.

As much as I wish I could offer a copy of his book at this time as a giveaway, Mike's book is not out yet. Which means you'll have to wait until October when I will be having a giveaway. But in the meantime, I can tell you his book (which I've read) is laugh out loud in hysterics funny and touching and sweet and just wonderful. So I take great pleasure in letting Mike take over the blog today.

Mike Jung

I've wanted to write a children's book since my days as a preschool teacher - my first love was actually picture books, although I write middle grade novels now. One of my favorites back then was Peggy Rathmann's OFFICER BUCKLE AND GLORIA, and it still amazes me to think that years later the editor of that book, Arthur Levine, is now my editor.
I later took a class in picture book illustration at UC Berkeley that was taught by Julie Downing, which was when I discovered that picture books are REALLY HARD. I was easily discouraged back then, so I spent the next 10 years daydreaming about writing childrens books while pursuing other things.
It was only when my daughter was born in 2006 that I realized I was at a crossroads. I could succumb to the notion that raising a family meant surrendering my long-held dream, or I could choose to test my mettle and truly commit to pursuing my dream. Thankfully, I chose the latter.
I mined a lot of my own childhood interests in doing so - my comic-book geek past, my feelings of alienation and disenfranchisement during my school years, and the bonds of friendship between early teenage boys. But I was also strongly influenced by my present reality as a husband and new father, and that's largely why a girl turns out to be the alter ego of Captain Stupendous.
It's also why my characters represent a variety of ethnicities, because thinking about the reality that my daughter had just entered made it impossible to do otherwise. During my teen years I was almost exclusively surrounded by people of white European descent, and that left its mark on me, but my daughter is growing up in a far more diverse and challenging slice of society than I did. I wanted to write a book that reflects her reality, which is now my reality. I'm honestly not sure if I made that choice for her benefit, or for mine, but it felt like the only valid choice I could make.
Ellen asked me why I think books like mine are important to our kids. I have some trouble thinking about my book in terms of importance. I hope kids will think my book is entertaining and funny, and that it'll provide a way for kids to temporarily escape from whatever struggles they're going through, as books so often did for me. I hope reluctant readers will give it a chance, have a good time reading it, and use it as a gateway to other, different books. 
I do also hope that kids of mixed ancestry and post-immigrant backgrounds will look at my book and recognize something of themselves in it, even if my book isn't a piercing examination of those aspects of their lives. In fact, I hope that readers will find value in the fact that GEEKS isn't about being a mixed kid or the child of second-generation parents, because I strongly believe that those kids can (and should) have stories that are as goofy, adventurous, lighthearted, and superpowered as anyone else.
What does diversity mean to me?
To me, diversity means complexity. Acknowledging diversity, comprehending it, and incorporating it into our worldviews is challenging. We have to be self-aware, so we can perceive own shortcomings. We must have strength, because without it we'll be unable to contain and manage the anger that an unjust world so often provokes. It's vital to continually learn from the people around us, because the alternative is to live in a destructive state of societal isolation. And we must be vulnerable in our hearts and generous in spirit, because it's only then that we can love and trust each other in the face of such constant exertion.
It doesnt make things any easier that the definition of ethnicity has expanded beyond ethnicity to include sexuality, gender, socioeconomic level, education, and more. The world can feel like an increasingly complex place, and the effort required to engage with it in a truly inclusive way is not insignificant.
That can be very discouraging, and some people clearly view it as a reason to entirely dismiss the concepts of diversity and inclusion, but they're wrong. Its vital that our individual mentalities evolve to match the increasing complexity of the world, because I believe a simplistic understanding of it is dangerous. An unwillingness to grapple with that complexity can directly contribute to the horrors of racism, religious hatred, misogyny, and homophobia.
What does this mean for me as a writer? Well, it means being vigilant about my creative choices, happenings in the industry, and the stellar example being set by other authors like Matt de la Pena, Mitali Perkins, and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, who are champions of diversity as well as champion authors. It means   engaging in meaningful dialogue whenever possible, and taking meaningful action whenever necessary.
It probably means my books will evolve over time, and that my current interest in writing books that are silly and entertaining will expand to include topics that are more explicitly concerned with diversity, at least in terms of my own life experiences. I have a book in me, somewhere below the surface, that will explore brotherhood, multigenerational families, life as the child of immigrants, and the shifting nature of adolescent identity. I need to grow into this idea, but one day I'll have both the chops and the fortitude to write it.
That's not to belittle the books I'm currently occupied with, however. GEEKS is chock-full of superheroes, giant robots, and slam-bang action scenes. It's not heavily focused on my protagonist's ethnic identity, and that's good too. As I said earlier, I think every kid on the planet could use a few laughs and a few daredevil adventures once in a while.
My protagonist is named Vincent Wu. Hes half-Korean, as is Polly Winnicott-Lee, the girl he has a mammoth crush on. My own children will always be able to look at my book and find characters with an ancestry similar to theirs, and Im grateful that Arthur A. Levine Books put that half-Korean boy right there on the cover for everyone to see. GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES wont change the world for anyone, but it might introduce a hint of needed complexity for someone.
It could even provide a note of affirmation for a kid whos struggling to find his or her place in the world, and that might be a legitimate way to illustrate the shift from a simplistic worldview to one that's more complex and complete. An isolated and alienated boy explores the world through books, and over time he starts to understand that the world is more vast and multifaceted than he previously suspected. As a result, this terribly lonely boy, who's always believed that the world has no place for him, starts to believe that maybe it does have a place for him after all.
Wouldn't that be glorious? Wouldn't that alone justify all the effort we expend in the name of diversity?


Natalie Aguirre said...

Awesome post Mike. Your book sounds like a fun read kids (and me) would enjoy. I so agree that kids just need to see themselves in stories and that the story doesn't have to focus on racial issues.

My daughter is adopted from China and I wish there were some books with main characters who were adopted (not orphans that she must always see) where adoption isn't the focus. Sadly there isn't anything out there for her yet.

Unknown said...

I love that your book has kids who are half Korean, but it isn't ABOUT being half Korean. It's just about normal life! Well... normal life with super powers and robots :) I bet your daughter is so, so proud of you. Cant' wait to read Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities when it's released!

Jeanne Ryan said...

My fourth-grader goes through books faster than I do. But in all those stories, I don't think he's found a main character that looks similar to him (he's half Chinese-Indonesian). You have no idea how excited I am to buy your book and give it to him this fall. Not just because there's an Asian kid on the cover, but because I'm sure it'll be a fantastic story as well.

Charles Gramlich said...

Love that cover.

Penguin said...

Will definitely get this book for my boys--who are both half-Koreans but rarely remembers this fact. My first grader was slanting his eyes back with his fingers saying he was pretending to be Chinese. I reminded him that when he does this, he's making fun of himself!

Great post, Mike,... and great series, Ellen!
GEEKS cover is so striking!

Mike Jung said...

Thanks everyone! I hope my future readers (however many of them there may be) will like the book and enjoy reading it. Thank you all for sharing your stories, it's very meaningful to me to hear then. And yes, AALB/Scholastic really did a fantastic job with the cover, which was illustrated by Mike Maihack and designed by Phil Falco.

Danette Vigilante said...

Hmmm ... I posted earlier but it's not there now. Anyway, I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading this. Also, I can't wait to read GEEKS!

Thanks for sharing with us, Mike!

G.M. said...

Thanks, Mike, for sharing your book with us. While I mainy follow China and next week will do a blog about American Chinese authors, I enjoy listening to songs from Korea. My favourite now is by Hyorin. Best wishes with your book.

Heather Tomlinson said...

Great post!

Jaye Robin Brown said...

Glorious indeed. I teach in a rural area, and though racially the kids are mostly the same, they are not reflected in the media, unless they're being made fun of. It's so important to give kids reflections of themselves within a broader world. Kudos. Look forward to your book's release date.

jonyangorg said...

This book needs to be here already! Great post.

Tara Lazar said...

Wonderful post, Mike. My children are growing up in a very diverse international community where *they*, as caucasian fourth-generation Americans, are the minority. I believe this is wonderful for their world view and I am so proud of our neighborhood. We celebrated just the other night with "International Night" at the school where parents from various countries made displays of their homeland and brought ethnic food to sample. The kids performed international dances from China, Italy, Africa, and many other countries. It was a celebration of our diversity and also of the things that unite us.

Can't wait for your book. I have been waiting for a LONG TIME and now it is closer than ever. Bravo!!!

olugbemisola said...

Mike, what you say about complexity, affirmation, etc. -- so very, very true. I can't tell you how much I am anticipating this book! You're wrong on one count, though -- I firmly believe that it will change many worlds. You already have.

Christina Farley said...

Fantastic post! I love how your characters are a mix of ethnicities and sometimes that's harder because there is that feeling of disconnect. Who am I really? Where do I belong to? I think more and more we will see kids struggle with those issuse and you are paving a way to help make sense of that.

I also love it that the ethnicity isn't the sole issue of the book. That it's just a part of who makes that character. It really allows us to see that heros and heroines are all ethnicities and that is normal and good.

Anonymous said...

Helping kids find their place in the world! Isn't that what it's all about?
I am really looking forward to your September release, Mike and I wish you much success!


Ani Louise said...

Mike, as usual, you manage to blow me away with your thoughts on a topic. Well said! And I can't wait to read GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES!

BTW, Of course your book is important! Funny, adventurous books are so important!!! Not everyone can handle a serious book, but put a serious subject in a funny book and it just might have the effect you talked about at the end:

"As a result, this terribly lonely boy, who's always believed that the world has no place for him, starts to believe that maybe it does have a place for him after all. "

playbazaar said...

Satta king
i like this very much!!!!!

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