Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Asian Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where Asian authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being Asian, Asian books, and the experiences of being an Asian reader. (Note: Here is an explanation of why we are calling this guest series ‘Asian Heritage Month’.)
There have been discussions about ‘windows,’ ‘mirrors’, and ‘sliding glass doors’ in literature; ‘windows’ provide a view to another world – whether real or imagined, and ‘sliding doors’ allows readers to walk through and enter another world, and another experience, which can shape the way we see ourselves and others. For a lot of marginalised readers, windows and sliding doors are abundant, but mirrors – a book or text that reflects an experience back at us, allowing us to see ourselves in a story – are a little more difficult to find — or may not even exist at all.
I think a moment that many readers will never forget is the moment when you finally see yourself in a book. It’s such a wondrous and powerful feeling, and I believe that every child and every reader should read books that are mirrors. Today, I have the utmost pleasure and honour to have Christina Li at the Pond today and she’s here to talk about her very first mirror – or, the very first time she saw herself in a book.
But before I share her piece, I want to take a moment to tell you about her upcoming middle grade debut, Clues to the Universe! In case you missed her book announcement, here it is!
I know I probably sound like a broken record, but let me say it again anyway: diverse middle grade stories have a very special place in my heart. Clues to the Universe sounds absolutely beautiful too. I’m especially looking forward to the dynamic of a young Asian scientist and a young artist, their friendship, and how they will explore grief together. (Don’t forget to add it on Goodreads!)
When I read Christina’s piece, I was moved and it made me reflect on the very first time that I saw myself in a story. I’m so happy to have Christina visiting us as a brown baby hedgehog, sipping tea from a teacup and sharing her words with us today. I hope you all enjoy this piece just as much as I did.
Christina Li: ‘The Book That Helped Me See Myself’
For much of my childhood, I loved reading any book I could get my hands on. And fortunately, with a friendly school librarian and my parents’ surprising willingness to buy me the books I wanted from the annual book fair despite their usual frugality, I did just that. I read about main characters going on epic adventures across space and time, developing incredible superpowers, and facing off lunchtime bullies and fearsome monsters alike.
The one thing was: none of them looked like me.
I didn’t think much of it at the time. Maybe when you’ve been conditioned your whole life to believe that people who look like you are only worthy of being the side character who can barely speak English, or the secret martial arts master, you don’t learn to question it. I admired these kid heroes from afar. They were fascinating, funny, and nuanced characters, but their stories weren’t mine.
I remember, in vivid detail, the first time I read Grace Lin’s novel, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, a Chinese mythology-inspired middle grade novel about a young girl named Minli who, upon hearing magical tales from her father, sets out to change her family’s fortune. My friend had given it to me for my birthday, and I had been hesitant about reading it, since the premise didn’t sound like any book I’d read before. But the moment I reluctantly started to read it, the story swept me up and did not let me go. I raced through the book, and when I finally settled on the last words of the story, I sat back, stunned, filled with contentment and admiration. And then I flipped back to the first page and started reading it again.
It was Grace Lin’s light touch of magic and mythology, her beautifully written world, and her unforgettable characters that drew me in. And moreover, it was a world that I somehow felt deeply and instinctively familiar with, filled with the stories my grandparents told me when I was a kid, with cultural details that I saw in my heritage. And, most of all, I saw myself in this book. Sure, I wasn’t going on a magical quest to find my family’s fortune, accompanied by talking rabbits and a very troubled dragon (though a dragon companion would sound very cool indeed). But Minli was the first Asian protagonist that I had ever read, and the fullness of her character gave me joy. She was resourceful, clever, and caring, and she was absolutely, unmistakably the hero of her own story.
Grace Lin was the one of the first Asian authors I had ever read, and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was, quite simply put, the book that changed my life, both as a reader and a writer. Through her books, I realized that kids who looked like me were not only able to be the heroes in these novels, but could also someday grow up to write these stories themselves. It encouraged me to start writing books of my own, featuring Asian protagonists who intrepidly find their own way in the world, with details from my own Chinese-American background lovingly added in. I wasn’t just reading other kids’ stories anymore—I was writing mine.
Today, there are so many incredible Asian authors—Katie Zhao, Karuna Riazi, Jessica Kim, Roshani Chokshi, to name some—whose incredible books feature beautifully created worlds and wonderful, strong, spunky Asian protagonists. These are authors whose books I wish I could have given to my childhood self, whose books I hope inspire a new generation of Asian readers and storytellers. And with my debut novel coming out next year featuring a main character who embraces her own Chinese heritage, I hope that I, too, can express to Asian kids and young adults today that they are undoubtedly, unquestionably worthy of being the heroes and storytellers of their own narratives.
About the Author
Christina Li is a student studying Economics at Stanford University. When she is not puzzling over her stats problem set, she is daydreaming about characters and drinking too much jasmine green tea. She grew up in the Midwest, but now calls California home. Her debut middle grade novel, Clues to the Universe, is coming out from Quill Tree/HarperCollins in early 2021.
I adored Christina’s piece and I hope you all did too! Moreover, I think Christina’s poignant yet hopeful words are an empowering reminder that representation and diversity in children’s literature is so so important. A huge thank you to Christina for visiting us today and sharing her story with us!
Lastly, don’t forget to add Clues to the Universe on Goodreads! It sounds like a delightful and powerful read; January 2021 cannot come soon enough.