Chinese Lawyer Writes Children’s Book to Fight Stereotypes

Illustration by Trisha Hautea from the forthcoming book, “Pepper Zhang,” written by Chinese-American lawyer Jerry Zhang. (Image via World Journal)

Among all the children’s books published in the U.S. in 2015, only 3.3 percent have Asian characters while 73.3 percent have white characters. The second most frequently appearing characters after white people are animals and cars, which make up 12.5 percent, according to a survey conducted by the School of Education at the of University of Wisconsin-Madison. Chinese-American lawyer Jerry Zhang thinks that’s why his young daughter once said to him: “I want blond hair too.” To help fight stereotypes and cultivate smooth racial relationships, Zhang decided to start with diversifying children’s books using his own hands.

So here is the first children’s book he has written, entitled “Pepper Zhang,” in which the main character is based on his daughter who likes to draw. When Zhang tried to raise money on Kickstarter to publish the book, the response was enthusiastic. The campaign, begun in April, is open till May 16. But the goal of $5,000 was reached in three days. By May 13, he had raised more than $10,000.

Zhang’s parents are immigrants from Shanghai. He came to the U.S. with his family when he was 5, and grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Zhang’s father, Fanghui Zhang, is a renowned novelist. Inheriting some talent from his father, Zhang was good at writing when he was a child. He then went to New York University to study English literature before he obtained his law degree at St. John’s University.

Zhang and his wife Beth, who is an educator, have two children, 4-year-old Madison and 1-year-old Everly. Zhang often reads to his daughters. That’s how he found that there are very few Asian characters in children’s books in the U.S. His older daughter, who likes reading and watching Disney movies, even said she doesn’t like to be Chinese, and she wants to be like the heroines in the books who have blond or red hair.

Zhang then asked his relatives to send them some books published in China. But most of the books are in Chinese. They have to be read by his parents to his daughters with him as the interpreter. Also, the books are mainly about fairy tales or historic stories popular in China. To Asian Americans growing up in the American culture, they are not easy to understand.  There are some books published in the U.S. for Asian-American children. But the stories are narrowly-focused, mainly on Chinatown and the Lunar New Year. Zhang thought to himself, if there was a character of a normal Asian girl who is as adventurous as Western children, and who does whatever she likes with creativity or magical powers, maybe his daughter would not have been so disappointed with her Chinese identity. “I thought I can write an interesting story which doesn’t have to be about the Asian culture but [works] for all readers,” said Zhang.

Zhang had similar struggles as his daughter when he was a child. Unable to find a role model that looked like him in the movies, he had to imagine himself as the Western role models. Zhang doesn’t want his daughters to go through the same ordeal. He knows the cognitive development of a child starts very early. He worries if he cannot write the book quickly enough, he’ll miss the best time. Zhang said he doesn’t intend to write a classic book for Asian children, but only wishes to put one more option in the market. And he hopes the book can attract non-Asian children too. If a child from Kentucky who doesn’t have an Asian classmate also thinks the Asian girl in the book is cool, then the book will help crack the stereotypes about Asians.

The book has four cornerstones: making its main character interesting, adventurous,  energetic and persistent. Zhang said his older daughter likes to draw. The heroine in this book is inspired by her. And this is also the biggest fun of writing the book. Zhang had the idea last summer. A friend introduced him to Filipino tattoo artist Trisha Hautea who then became the volunteer illustrator of the book.

Some people think children’s books are easy to make because there aren’t many words in them. But Zhang found that the fewer words in a book, the more you have to make each of them appealing and inspiring. It is also an interesting challenge to write in a way that is easy for children to understand.

Zhang said this first book should fulfill the writing dream he once had, as well as be a gift to his children. He decided to self publish via crowd funding than offering it to a publishing house because he doesn’t want it to be edited for the purpose of boosting sales.

While the book is slated to be published in September, Zhang has already started to think of the next one. The positive reaction from donors makes him confident. He plans to develop the book into a series. In the next book, the main character will be a boy. Zhang hopes the series can be put on the shelves of libraries. His advice to Asian parents is: “Our children grow up in this diverse country. Many parents often like to criticize the things they don’t like but they are slow to act. I hope what I did can inspire more parents to write stories for their children.”

To learn more about the book, go to: littleningbooks.com

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