Jeremy Lin is a Taiwanese-American, Los Angeles born, Harvard educated, undrafted NBA point guard who rose to unexpected stardom on the New York Knicks (he’s now a member of the Houston Rockets). A little over a year ago, in February 2012, Lin had a moment in history that transcended sports and race and became a worldwide phenomenon affectionately referred to as “Linsanity.” This meteoric rise is best encapsulated in the CBS “60 Minutes” special that recently aired. In a nutshell: Lin went from bench-warming obscurity to international sensation as he led the New York Knicks on a winning streak that defied all odds. In his 12 starts before the All-Star break, Lin averaged 22.5 points and 8.7 assists, and New York had a 9–3 record. Jeremy Lin is one of the few Asian Americans in NBA history, and the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA.
So What Does Linsanity Have to do with Children’s Books?
In this long discourse we are having about diversity in children’s books, it’s important to turn the lens outward, to explore what’s going on in other industries, the hurdles they face and how they are confronted. Sports in America—to make a very general statement—is riddled with stereotypes and assumptions. Just watch this Powerade commercial that illustrates my point beautifully.
Jeremy Lin isn’t Yao Ming. He’s not a big-man, towering over opponents at 7’6. He isn’t a first round draft pick from China with sponsorships and a market of a billion people already behind him. Jeremy Lin is an American born, Taiwanese, 6’3 point guard and former Ivy Leaguer who nobody wanted. He was an outsider in the basketball world throughout his life. He did not fit the mold or our perception of what an “NBA Superstar” should be. Scouts didn’t think so. Coaches didn’t think so. Lin was sent down to the D-League three times and waived by both the Warriors and the Rockets before landing on the Knicks bench where at first he saw minimal playing time.
But in those few weeks in February, when he rose so swiftly, without warning, without even a hint of what was to come in those dozen games, he took the world by storm and broke the mold. He lived that fabled and longed-for “American dream” in such a concentrated span of time, on the world’s largest stage, that you couldn’t turn on the TV or radio, or open a magazine or newspaper, without hearing about “Linsanity.” During that stretch, his jersey was the top-selling jersey in the NBA. Before that, the jersey simply didn’t exist. In what felt like a split-second, Lin changed the self-perception of Asian American athletes everywhere. Hoards of fans and supporters gathered at bars to cheer for him. On playgrounds, kids of all races pretended to be Jeremy Lin. Cardboard cutouts of his face blanketed the stands of MSG. He not only gave Asian Americans a sense of hope and promise, but he changed the lens that the rest of the world used to view Asian Americans in sports.
I’ve never been so proud or energized at the sight of a palpable and undeniable shift in our cultural format. Lin was what I’d been waiting for my whole life--an Asian American who wasn’t the geeky, mathematic, sidekick with secret kung-fu skills. But rather an Asian American who was the star, the focal point, the game changer. He was someone who had everyone rooting for him, an entire nation of people caught up in “Linsanity” whether they were Asian or not.
Again, What Does this Have to do with Children’s Books?
|A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park|
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Peña
Bronxwood by Coe Booth
So What Do We Do?
What we need to do is give young writers examples by which to follow, and stoke a sense of attainability in what has been historically thought of as unattainable. One thing that is already being done, but we could certainly do more of, is bring more authors of color into classrooms. By introducing students to potential role models, and making that direct connection, authors can be their own ambassadors, reaching the kid in the back of the class who’s never considered a life in books. We don’t need marketing dollars for that. We don’t need the perfect commercial jacket for that. What we need are schools and libraries seeking out these authors for their students, and authors who can deliver a dynamic presentation that inspires and resonates with these kids. If the demand is there, perhaps then we can ask local booksellers to make more requests for these authors, and in turn, publishers will invest more into getting these authors on the road. If what’s needed is the “audience” to dictate the support, then let’s get these authors out there to build their audience themselves.
With the rising numbers of the non-white population in America, and the fact that within a matter of years there will be more non-white children than white children, the market is there and only getting larger. The millions of readers are there for the taking, but it’s up to agents, editors, publishers, marketers, teachers, librarians, and parents to help find the talent, nurture it, believe in it, and back it up. We need to groom the poster child who will earmark history with a tangible turning point.
Only then will this conversation resonate to the non-believers and naysayers who think this ship is too big with a rudder too small to change direction. There are some in the industry who maintain that books written by authors of color, or about characters of color, simply can’t succeed in the wider market place, which is why it’s difficult for publishers and booksellers to fully support them. But we need to take the long view. Change our own perceptions. Believe the mold can be broken. Understand that as the landscape of color quickly changes in America, so too must our rigid definitions of what is and is not “highly marketable.”
There are amazing books already out there by authors of color and about characters of color that are doing really well. What I’m hoping for is that all-consuming moment of “insanity” that will change forever the way we talk about diversity in children's literature. Maybe it’s a book written by an established author, maybe it’s a book written by a kid who has the chance to meet that established author at his school. There was a time, not more than a year ago, when an Asian American NBA superstar was not even a shadow of a thought in most people’s minds.
Today, “Linsanity” has been adopted into the cultural lexicon and the ripple effect has been worldwide. This can happen for us too in kids' books. The demographic of America is shifting. This is a fact. Will we sit here and wait for our Jeremy Lin to show up and then react? Or will we actively search for him ourselves?