I’m so happy to be participating in Multicultural Children’s Book Day this year! What a fantastic way to learn about diverse texts for young people.
I’m reminded, too, that when writing about diverse experiences, I think it’s critical that those books are written by #ownvoices, cultural insiders who share the background(s) of the people they’re writing about. I need to foreground that before I review the book I was mailed for MCBD: Making Friends with Billy Wong by Augusta Scattergood.
In this middle grade historical fiction novel, Azalea is a young white girl about to start the sixth grade after enjoying a summer with her beloved parents in Texas. Imagine her surprise, then, when those same parents (mom, actually), drive her to Arkansas to help her ailing grandmother. Suddenly, her summer plans aren’t looking too great at all.
Until…she meets the mysterious Billy Wong, a Chinese American boy whose aunt and uncle happen to own…wait for it…the only grocery store in their small town.
And it’s 1952.
And Billy Wong is called all kinds of racist names by a particularly mean white boy, Willis, who is upset about his own poverty and that Billy Wong might take his place on the middle school track team.
But Billy doesn’t get angry. Nope. Instead, Billy, who dreams of being a reporter, responds in a journal. The novel alternates between Azalea’s narration and Billy’s journalistic entries.
This novel is great for teaching about why we need cultural insiders to write their own stories. In the Author’s Note, Scattergood describes becoming interested in Chinese American settlement in the South, leading her to do some research and talk to a Chinese American friend. As far as I can tell, Scattergood is not Chinese American. She has a Chinese American friend.
My largest issue with this novel is that Billy is a flat character and a foil for Azalea. Essentially, he and his family are the model minorities (see: Model Minority Myth). Billy lives with his aunt and uncle and helps them run the store because he wants to attend the school in their town. His old school, where his parents live, was an African American school that had no resources.
I know that this history is important for young people to learn. Many adults are unfamiliar with the long history of Asian American settlement in the South. While it’s great that Scattergood felt interested in this topic, I know that there are #ownvoices writers who are telling that story through well-developed, nuanced characters who live their own lives and who don’t exist to placate or develop white characters. (See: Erin Entrada Kelly, and I know she’s not Chinese American, but it’s important to know that ethnicity matters, too!). In my opinion, you should actively seek out those writers if you really want the perspective of this time period. It would be a great activity to introduce students to critical literacy by doing actual research using primary sources and comparing them to the depiction of Chinese Americans in the text. If you want to push it further, you might even do some work with the White Savior Industrial Complex by Teju Cole and how it works in this book.
Thus, on this Multicultural Children’s Book Day, it’s my hope that you read some really great books, that you learn more about who should be telling particular stories, and why those own voices matter now, more than ever.
Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 (1/27/17) is its fourth year and was founded by Valarie Budayr from Jump Into A Book and Mia Wenjen from PragmaticMom. Our mission is to raise awareness on the ongoing need to include kid’s books that celebrate diversity in home and school bookshelves while also working diligently to get more of these types of books into the hands of young readers, parents and educators.
Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Using the Multicultural Children’s Book Day holiday, the MCBD Team are on a mission to change all of that.
Current Sponsors: MCBD 2017 is honored to have some amazing Sponsors on board. Platinum Sponsors include Scholastic, Barefoot Books and Broccoli. Other Medallion Level Sponsors include heavy-hitters like Author Carole P. Roman, Audrey Press, Candlewick Press, Fathers Incorporated, KidLitTV, Capstone Young Readers, ChildsPlayUsa, Author Gayle Swift, Wisdom Tales Press, Lee& Low Books, The Pack-n-Go Girls, Live Oak Media, Author Charlotte Riggle, Chronicle Books and Pomelo Books
Author Sponsor include: Karen Leggett Abouraya, Veronica Appleton, Susan Bernardo, Kathleen Burkinshaw, Delores Connors, Maria Dismondy, D.G. Driver, Geoff Griffin, Savannah Hendricks, Stephen Hodges, Carmen Bernier-Grand,Vahid Imani, Gwen Jackson, Hena, Kahn, David Kelly, Mariana Llanos, Natasha Moulton-Levy, Teddy O’Malley, Stacy McAnulty, Cerece Murphy, Miranda Paul, Annette Pimentel, Greg Ransom, Sandra Richards, Elsa Takaoka, Graciela Tiscareño-Sato, Sarah Stevenson, Monica Mathis-Stowe SmartChoiceNation, Andrea Y. Wang
We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also work tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHosts HERE.
8 responses to “#ReadYourWorld Making Friends With Billy Wong”
“This novel is great for teaching about why we need cultural insiders to write their own stories.” WEEL SAID. Your honesty in much appreciated in the review as well. Thank you for being part of this event! #readyourworld
Thank you! It’s important to make those points to folks can be informed, for sure.
Before I read your review I hoped you would go this direction. I feel the same way, as much as I admire Scattergood’s writing. Own voices is the best way. And I know Erin Entrada Kelly. Her books are fantastic. Mike Jung’s books are too.
Thanks, Joanne. Yup. Absolutely agreed, and I’ll add Mike Jung’s books, too. Thanks again!
How does a book like this make it on the MCBD list? White centered, white savior, harmful stereotype of Asian Americans as model minorities. Forget about this one and read Grace Lin instead. Also, for anyone interested in excellent critique in the #OwnVoices thread, follow Debbie Reese’s work on her blog https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/.
I don’t know about how the books are selected, but I do think that it matters that they are written by ownvoices. And yes to Debbie Reese!
When I read your summary, I thought “Hmmm…”, so I’m glad you addressed the shortcomings of this book and discussed the importance of ownvoices stories.
Yes! I hope folks read these books critically because, as you said, ownvoices matter! Thank you!