Through her eight years of working as an elementary school teacher and librarian, Elaine Su has often been asked questions like “Do you have a book recommendation for a kid with two moms?” or have parents tell her: “My kid is biracial, and non-binary. I can’t find any books that reflect their identity.”
Those queries always set Su on a little hunt — to find books those kids could identify with.
“It's something that I've gotten quite used to doing a lot for people. It brings me so much joy, it brings so much joy to families and to kids; and it means a lot to a lot of parents to be able to show their kids something that they wouldn't necessarily have seen before.”
So earlier this year, Su wondered: what if she did it on a larger scale?
In May 2022, she got a grant through the Neighbourhood Small Grants program to “match kids who are underrepresented in kid's books with brand new books that reflected their identity and lived experiences.”
Su put a call out to parents, saying: “If you feel like your child is underrepresented in the books that they're seeing, apply, and I will see if I can find something for them.”
The message was posted on her personal social media account, the New Westminster Moms Group on Facebook and some neighbourhood groups.
In response, a total of 60 New West families applied, she said.
Matching kids with books they can relate to
“Some people have been like: when I was growing up, I had deep shame about my culture, my race, and I don't want my kids to grow up like that. I want them to read books that really celebrate the joy of their identity,” said Su.
“I've had a few applicants who said, ‘We're an Indigenous family; we are growing up away from our roots and we are trying to reclaim our identity. I really want to cite books that help celebrate that instead of feeling shame or feeling like we're any less'.”
Su has been busy the past few months finding books for these applicants. “It's been challenging.”
“Some of them are a little bit easier than others — like when they say ‘We are a first generation Chinese Canadian family', I can find books for that depending on the age of the kids,” she said. “Then there are other families who are like, ‘We are a biracial family with a Black mom and a white father, and our child is non-binary,” she added. Those are more challenging to find.
Su came across "so many wonderful intersections of identity,” she said. But are there books that reflect those?
Not enough, she said. However, she noted that children's publishing is a lot more diverse than it used to be. “It’s getting there,” she said.
Pushing for more diversity in children's books
“But as I'm finding in this project, we are still so far behind — there are so few books to represent such a wide diversity of experiences. And, for so many multiracial families, for gender non-binary and gender non-conforming kids who also happen to be racialized, who also happen to be disabled, there are still so few books that reflect the intersection of their identities and their experiences.”
Through the project, Su has been able to notice these gaps in publishing and convey it to the people she knows within the industry.
Out of the 60 families who reached out for her help, Su has been able to purchase the right books for about 30 of them — some through the new New Westminster-based Wildfires Bookshop.
Some of the titles include Luna Loves Library Day, a story about "a biracial family with divorced but present and caring parents", My Footprints, which is centred around "a multi-racial child with two moms", Swift Fox All Along, which follows the life of an "urban Indigenous child finding ways to connect with their extended family and roots", What Riley Wore that shows a "gender non-binary toddler expressing joy and humour with their daily clothing choices", and Jukebox, a "fantasy graphic novel featuring biracial girl protagonist."
The applicants will get their books by mail. But, said Su,"I have more applicants than I have the funds for” — adding that she is also accepting donations from people to be able to fulfill all 60 requests.
With the project, Su is making sure kids this generation get that which she lacked growing up: being able to read books that reflect their reality.
As a child, for Su, Claudia Kishi from the popular 90s book series Baby Sitters Club was the only form of representation in literature she could identify with. Kishi was Japanese American, Su is an East Asian Canadian person, “but that was as close as we got; I had exactly one character that looked vaguely like me. That was it.”
“There were no stories that I could read that spoke to my identity, my family's lived experience, our culture and our day-to-day experience. There were just no books that were centred around a different experience, a different identity,” she recalled.
“So I'm grateful that my kids are growing up at a time where they can reading books that reflect back to them the realities that they grow up in,” she said.
“Because, that's definitely not what I had when I was growing up,” she said.
Follow Elaine Su's work on her website.