This Is the Book Series on Famous Asian Americans I Wish I’d Had as a Kid
I grew up with Ai-Ling Louie's folklore retelling—now she's publishing her own inspiring biographies for children
JUN 20, 2019
Cathy Erway is the author of The Food of Taiwan: Recipes from the Beautiful Island and the memoir The Art of Eating In. She hosts the podcast Self Evident, exploring Asian American stories.
An alternate tale of Cinderella has haunted me since childhood. A picture book in rich pastels, it told the story of a poor servant girl with a nasty step-family, named Yeh-Shen, who lived “In the dim past, even before the Ch’in and the Han dynasties” in China. This folklore can be traced back in writing to the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), and shares remarkable similarities with that of Cinderella—she goes to a ball, loses a slipper, and is found by a prince by virtue of her small feet. But the oldest European version of Cinderella dates back only to 1634. “Cinderella seems to have made her way to Europe from Asia,” reads a note on the dedication page to Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story From China. The book was written by Ai-Ling Louie and illustrated by Ed Young, and it was first published by Philomel Books, a division of Putnam, in 1982.
Like the legend of Yeh-Shen, Ai-Ling Louie’s career has lived in the shadows of children’s book publishing. As an Asian American author who came of age during the ‘60s, her trials and tribulations are a sharp contrast to the creative careers of many Asian American artists working today. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College (where she and Vera Wang were the only Chinese Americans in their class of ’71), and Wheelock College, Louie aimed to write children’s books about successful, modern-day Asian Americans, but no publishers were interested. Louie switched gears to publish the legend of Yeh-Shen, but remained determined to see her passion project through. Between 2012 and 2018, she ultimately self-published the series under her own Dragoneagle Press. It includes biographies on Vera Wang, Yo-Yo Ma and his sister Yeoh-Cheng Ma, astronaut Kalpana Chawla, and most recently, U.S. Congresswoman Patsy Mink.
When Electric Literature asked Twitter followers to share the first book they’d read by an Asian American author during APA heritage month, I realized my answer was Louie’s Yeh-Shen. I then was thrilled to discover her more recent biographies for children—books I wish I’d had growing up. I talked to Louie about her struggle to put the series into the world, why she felt it was valuable, and what it was like to be an Asian American author during her time.
Cathy Erway: Were there many other Asian Americans in your school environment? And did this have an effect on you or your work?
Ai-Ling Louie: I’d like to start a little farther back than college and show how immigration laws affect the lives of real people. I was one of the few Chinese American children born in the U.S. in the 1940’s. Immigration laws discriminated against us, keeping immigration from China to 150 persons a year, while those from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany numbered over 104,000.
In 1954 when I was a kindergartener in a public school on Long Island in New York, I, alone, integrated my school as the only non-white in the entire building. The name-calling and insulting gestures and shunning I received were a shock to me. It was a good thing I came from a strong family, who told me I was to hold my head up and to use my wits to find a way around any obstacle.
Even if we celebrate the few who make it, we must not forget the many whose lives are stunted or whose minds are embittered by their treatment.
When discriminatory immigration laws are written and prejudice against one race or another is acceptable, I find there are many who suffer and only a few lucky ones who find a way to thrive. Even if we celebrate the few who make it, we must not forget the many whose lives are stunted or whose minds are embittered by their treatment.
I saw all around me the perception that Chinese girls are pretty and docile and Chinese boys are weak and unassertive. It warped my generation, and I still see these stereotypes around me. My family and I talk about them all the time. We see how it has negatively affected many of our Chinese American cousins, nieces and nephews. I set out to try to change these perceptions.
CE: What made you decide to share the story of Yeh-Shen as an illustrated book for children?
ALL: I wanted to write stories about Asians in America, but the ones I submitted to publishers were not being accepted. I decided to try to break in to publishing with a folk tale that my grandmother knew, Yeh-Shen. Sure enough, it was quickly accepted. I thought I could write my Asian-American stories after “Yeh-Shen” was published.
CE: How did you publish your series of Asian American biographies for children?
ALL: I spent many frustrating years trying to get a second book published. Finally, I realized I was going to have to find a way around this obstacle. I started my own publishing company, Dragoneagle Press, in 2007. My brother, Jonathan Louie, a graphic designer, is my partner. Children and teachers were clamoring for biographies of Asian Americans. May was designated as Asian American History Month. Libraries needed attractive books for their May displays. I decided to write a series, “Amazing Asian Americans.” It was my hope that someday the big publishers would pick up my series and distribute it across America.
CE: How do you decide on the subjects for these biographies? And are you working on any new additions to the series now?
ALL: When I got to Sarah Lawrence College, Vera Wang and I were the only Chinese-Americans in our class. She was the best-dressed, affluent daughter from one of the top private schools. I was the girl on scholarship, who had needed tutoring in French class. After graduation, I watched her career rise and rise and rise.
I spent many frustrating years trying to get a second book published. Finally, I realized I was going to have to find a way around this obstacle.
When I was a librarian in New Jersey in the 2000’s, I saw that the state had a large population of South Asian Americans, mostly from India. I learned that South Asian Americans were the U.S.’s latest and largest Asian immigrant group come to the United States. There wasn’t a single biography of a South Asian American on the children’s bookshelf. I knew there was a U.S. astronaut, who was originally from India, Kalpana Chawla. So, I set out to write a book about her.
Patsy Mink was the first congresswoman of color and the co-author of an important law, Title IX, which changed education and women’s lives in a big way. Yet Americans didn’t seem to know who she was, or why she was important. I found out her papers, 2,000 boxes of them, were stored at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and open to the public. I spent three summers at the Library, doing research, a job I find exciting.
I am not working on any new books for the series. I am happy that I accomplished what I set out to do.
CE: Why did you feel that this series was an important addition to children’s books?
ALL: After 1965, I saw the next generation of Chinese Americans come to the U.S. The new Hart-Cellar Law let more Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, come to this country and to bring in their families, their sisters and brothers, to reunite families. There were more young students of color in public school classes. As an elementary school teacher and then a children’s librarian, I was getting to see children from China, India, Brazil and Egypt, all in the same school. There were many students who looked like me but came from Vietnam, Korea or the Philippines. And so, I began to see myself as an Asian American rather than just a Chinese American. These Asian American children needed books in their libraries that showed children like them. They needed to see a future for themselves as American citizens, capable of contributing to the country. Indeed, all Americans needed to see Asian Americans and other non-whites as full Americans. American publishers were slow to see this and change. The few books they were publishing were full of stereotypes. I knew I could do better.
Electric Literature is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in 2009. Our mission is to amplify the power of storytelling with digital innovation, and to ensure that literature remains a vibrant presence in popular culture by supporting writers, embracing new technologies, and building community to broaden the audience for literature.
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Asian American Children’s Biographies
Prepared by Dragoneagle Press
A Life Made by Hand: Ruth Asawa, Japanese American Artist and Sculptor. By D'Aquino, Andrea. Princeton, NJ, Princeton Architecture Press, 2019.
Amy Tan: Women of Achievement. Written by Charles J. Shields. New York: Chelsea House, 2001, 116 pgs., 5th grade and up.
Asian Americans Who Inspire Us. By Analiza Quiroz Wolf. Independently published 2019. 100 pgs.
Astronaut Kalpana Chawla, Reaching for the Stars; Amazing Asian Americans. Written by Ai-Ling Louie. Bethesda: Dragoneagle Press, 2014. 48 pgs., 4-6th grades
Be Water, My Friends; the Early Years of Bruce Lee. Written by Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee. New York: Lee and Low, 2006, 32 pgs. 2-4th grades.
Chef Roy Choi. Written by Jaqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee. Bellevue WA, Readers to Eaters, 2017. 32 pgs. Grades 3 and up.
Daniel Inouye; Asian Americans of Achievement. Written by Mary Chipley Slavicek. New York: Chelsea House 2007. 112 pgs., 5th grade and up.
Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice. Grimes, Nikki. Cambridge, MA, Atheneum Pr. 2020.
Drawing From Memory (an autobiography). Written by Allen Say. New York:Scholastic, 2011, 64 pgs., 4th to 6th grade.
The East-West House, Noguchi’s Childhood in Japan. Written by Christy Hale. New York: Lee and Low, 2009, 32 pgs., 3rd to 6th grade.
Ellison Onizuka. Great Asian Americans. Written by Stephanie Cham. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Press, 2018. 24 pgs. K-3.
Fearless Flights of Hazel Ying Lee. Leung, Julie. New York, Little Brown. 2021
Going for the Gold: Apolo Anton Ohno. Written by Thomas Lang, New York: Avon Books, 2002. 128 pgs., 5th grade and up.
Good Fortune. Written by Li Keng Wong. Atlanta: Peachtree, 2006. 127 pgs. 4th to 6th grades.
Grace Lin. Written by Abby Colich. North Mankato, MN, Capstone Press, 2014. 24 pgs. Grades 1-3.
I am an American; The Wong Kim Ark Story. Brockenbrough, Martha. New York, Little Brown, 2021
Isamu Noguchi; Asian Americans of Achievement. Written by Carolie Tiger. New York: Chelsea, 2007, 112 pgs., 5th grade and up.
I.M. Pei: Architect of Time, Place, and Purpose, Written by Jill Rubalcalba. Tarrytown, Marshall Cavendish, 102 pgs., grades 5 and up.
Kristi Yamaguchi: Asian American Biographies. Written by Elaine A. Kule. Chicago, Raintree, 2005, 64 pages, grades 5 and up
Last Hawaiian Queen, Liluokalani. Written by Paula Guzette. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1997, 48 pgs. grades 5 and up.
Le Ly Hayslip: American Biographies. Written by Mary Englar. Chicago, Raintree, 2005, 64 pgs. Grades 5 and up.
Mai Ya’s Long Journey, Badger Biography Series. Madison, Wisconsin Historical Society, 80 pgs., grades 4 and up.
Maya Lin. Written by Amy Stone. Chicago: Raintree, 2003, 32 pgs., grades 4-6.
Maya Lin, Artist-Architect of Light and Lines, Designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Written by Jeanne Walker Harvey. New York, Holt, 2017. 32 pgs., grades 2-4.
Meet Laurence Yep: About the Author. Written by Alice B. Mc Ginty. New York: Powerkids Press, 2003, 24 pgs., grades 2 to 4.
Michelle Kwan, Figure Skater. Ferguson Career Biographies. Written by Todd Peterson, New York: Ferguson , 124 pgs., 5th grade and up.
Michelle Kwan,. Great Asian Americans. Written by Stephanie Cham. Mankato, MN, Capstone Press. 2018. 24 pgs. K-3.
Nuclear Physicist Chien-Shiung Wu; STEM Trailblazer Bios. Written by Valerie Bodden. Minneapolis, MN, Lerner, 2018. 32 pgs., grades 3-6.
Paper Son; the Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist. Written by Julie Leung. New York, Schwartz & Wade, 2019. 32 pgs., grades 2-4.
Patsy Mink, Mother of Title 9; Amazing Asian Americans. Written by Ai-Ling Louie. Bethesda, Dragoneagle Press, 2018, 34 Pages, grades 3-6.
Patsy Mink. Great Asian Americans. Written by Stephanie Cham. Mankato, MN Capstone Press. 2018.
Role Models Who Look Like Me; Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who Made History. By Jasmin M. Cho.
Yummiholic, 2019. 34 pgs.
Tiger Woods: Golf Legend. Williams, Doug. MN, Essential Library ABDO. 2019
Shining Star, The Anna May Wong Story. Written by Paula Yoon. New York: Lee and Low, 2007, 48 pgs., grades 3 to 6.
Sky High; The True Story of Maggie Gee. Written by Marissa Moss. Berkeley:Tricycle, 2009, 28 pgs., grades 2 to 4.
Surfer of the Century; The Life of Duke Kahanamoku. Written by Ellie Crowe. New York: Lee and Low, 2007, 48 pgs., grades 3-6.
Tammy Duckworth. Great Asian Americans. Written by Stephanie Cham. Mankato, MN. Capstone Press. 2018. 24 pgs. K-3.
Vera Wang, Queen of Fashion; Amazing Asian Americans. Ai-Ling Louie. North Branch: Dragoneagle, 2007, 48 pgs. grades 3 to 5.
We are Inspiring, the Stories of 32 Inspirational Asian American Women. By Angel Trazo. Book Baby, 2019. Grades 1-2.
Yo-Yo and Yeou-Cheng Ma, Finding Their Way; Amazing Asian Americans. Written by Ai-Ling Louie. Bethesda, Dragoneagle, 2012, 48 pgs., grades 3 to 5.
Yo-Yo Ma: Asian American Biographies. Written by Mary Olmstead. New York: Raintree, 2005, 64 pages, grades 6 and up.
Yo-Yo Ma. Great Asian Americans. Written by Stephanie Cham. Mankato, MN, Capstone Press. 2018. 24 pgs. K-3.
Earlier this month, authors Ly Tran and Qian Julie Wang waited in a line that stretched down Mulberry Street in New York City’s Chinatown. Along with dozens of other writers and readers, the friends were eager to attend the grand opening of a new neighborhood bookstore. When they finally made it inside, Tran said she “saw books flying off the shelves” as customers filled the bookstore, cafe and bar.
Pastry chef Lauren Tran of Bánh by Lauren had supplied sheets full of sweets, and the Asian American-owned brewery That Witch Ales You had donated growlers of coconut porter and a litchi red ale — although the bánh had been devoured by the time Tran and Wang made it inside the store. The evening’s turnout was all in celebration of Yu and Me Books, which is believed to be Chinatown’s first Asian American, woman-owned bookstore.
On Dec. 11, 27-year-old Lucy Yu — a chemical engineer by trade, most recently working as a supply chain manager — opened the bookstore, which she said she’s wished existed since she was a child. As violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities spiked during the pandemic, Yu felt her lifelong dream become more urgent, she said. With the opening of Yu and Me Books, Yu is hoping to create not only a bookstore, but a community space that centers Asian storytelling and specifically immigrant narratives.
[ ‘A safe haven’: 3 Asian American women reflect on where they find sanctuary]
Growing up in Los Angeles, Yu said she never saw a space full of stories that represented her and her family’s experiences. “There’s not a lack of books being written about immigrants” or by authors of color, she said, which she realized as she began researching what it would take to open her own bookstore. But those books were never “put at the forefront of a lot of the bookstores that I grew up with,” she added.
In early November, Yu and Me Books opened with a soft launch; the event featured poet and novelist Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai and memoirist Tran reading from their books “The Mountains Sing” and “House of Sticks,” respectively. Tran said that, like at the grand opening, readers and authors turned out for an event centered on food and stories — the reading began at a nearby restaurant and migrated over to Yu and Me Books.
“There are quite a lot of themes in my book. But one of them is the theme of storytelling and how we use storytelling as a means of survival,” said Tran, who also noted that she also never really saw herself reflected on bookstore shelves growing up. “The fact that Yu and Me Books is honoring that tradition of storytelling — it couldn’t have come at a more crucial time. It’s a salve on the open wounds that the community has suffered.”
Tran isn’t the only Asian woman author who has shown her support: Comic artist Wendy Xu, children’s author Vicky Wu, novelist and publisher Amy Le and cookbook author Vi Tran have all donated signed copies of their books to the store, according to Yu.
According to Jafreen Uddin, executive director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the Asian American literary scene in New York City isn’t one marked by competition. “We’ve really embraced the idea of working together to create as diverse and wide-ranging a larger community as possible,” she said. “I think collectively, we’ve all realized and agreed that [competition] embraces a scarcity mind-set that none of us are comfortable with.”
Yu said that support “has been really amplified” in opening her bookstore: “I feel so grateful that all these writers and makers trust me to create this warm and welcoming space for them to work.”
[ Celeste Ng called Amy Tan. We listened in.]
In naming Yu and Me Books, Yu wasn’t only aiming for a playful pun on her last name, but to honor another writer — her mother, whose initials are “YM” — and the stories that are passed down between generations.
“We’ve gotten much closer as I’ve gotten older, but, especially growing up, I think we haven’t always found the best way to communicate with each other,” Yu said. But one thing Yu and her mother did always share in common was a love of books.
In fact, Yu said, both her grandmother and mother are writers. “Even though our language is not always the same and the ways that we communicate our knowledge is not the same, the love that we share is always through the stories that we share,” she said.
By giving her bookstore her mother’s initials, Yu also hoped to reference the way stories have been shared within immigrant communities. According to Uddin, the term “Asian American” was originally meant “to build political power by college students” in the 1970s. “As a group in America, we’re actually quite young,” she said. But Asian literary traditions “are classical in every sense of the word.”
Although classical literature is often equated with Western authors like Homer and Sophocles, Uddin emphasized that Asian literary and oral histories date back millennia — and that there is no single, all-encompassing Asian identity.
Tran agreed. “The AAPI identity — we say it all the time, but it’s often lumped into a monolith. And that monolith often ends up taking the face of East Asian identity,” she said. “One thing that I really appreciate Lucy doing is that she’s made it a point to showcase work by Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander authors.”
In part a response to the violence the Asian American community has faced in recent years, the bookstore is designed with the goals of building a center for the community and creating a space for conversation, Yu said.
[ Anti-Asian American violence is prompting these women to speak out: ‘We still feel invisible’]
The bookstore itself is laid out around a bar where guests can linger in the store, eating snacks and sipping drinks.
For Tran, the bookstore’s location is also a commitment to the Asian American community. “I think what’s really powerful is where Yu and Me Books is located, in the heart of Chinatown, which is such a place of community for Asian American immigrants resettling here in New York City,” she said. “I know for my family, which I write about, that was a place that we first went to in order to feel like we were a part of something when we first immigrated here.”
Yu hopes that, in time, the bookstore will become a community space not only for sharing books, but for sharing personal, and sometimes difficult, stories. She’s already planning a partnership with the Cosmos, an Asian woman-led self-care and mental health organization, for next year. “We’re trying to create a space” where “people come and talk about mental health within the Asian community,” Yu said.
And although Yu says she’s proud to be among the first Asian American woman bookstore owners in Manhattan, she hopes bookstore owners of all backgrounds will try to build more diversity into their shelves: “I think that’s really important to create a path forward” to “showcase stories that may not always be heard.”
Cecilia Nowell is a freelance reporter covering gender, reproductive health and the Americas.
📷 (Mengwen Cao for The Washington Post)