In 2002, I stumbled upon an article about Dr. Sammy Lee. I learned he was the first Asian American to win a gold medal in diving at the Olympics.
I had never heard of Sammy Lee before. The article fascinated me. Distracted, I fell into a rabbit hole as I devoured information about this world-renowned athlete.
As a Korean American, I was inspired by Sammy Lee’s triumph over racism. I wished I had known about him when I was growing up. His positive story would have helped me cope better with the many painful incidents of racism I experienced as a child and teenager.
When I discovered that no children’s book had ever been written about Sammy Lee, I decided to write Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story.
An early reader advised me that my manuscript might not have a chance with mainstream publishers. After all, according to statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, out of 3,150 children’s books published in 2002, only 46 (1 percent!) were written by Asian Pacific Americans and only 91 (less than 3 percent!) were about Asian Americans. (The statistics for other diverse groups were just as sparse.)
I ended up submitting my manuscript to Lee & Low’s annual “New Voices” contest for writers of color. To my shock, it won!
Lee & Low published Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds in 2005. That year, out of the 2,800 children’s books published, 60 were written by Asian Pacific American authors and 64 books were about Asian subjects/characters. The statistics were still deplorable, but I was delighted that MY book was part of that 2 percent.
That inspired me to write more children’s biographies of important Asian historical figures. I suddenly had a mission—to make sure our community was represented, to make sure our stories and our voices were heard.
This led to two more picture book biographies—Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story (Lee & Low, 2009) about Asian American film star Anna May Wong and Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank (Lee & Low, 2014) about Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus.
CCBC statistics from 2017 show that out of 3,700 books published, 274 were written by Asian Pacific Americans and 310 were about Asian people/issues. That’s still less than 10 percent of all books published. We still have a long way to go.
Statistics are just as grim in our educational system. The absence of Asian American history in our school curricula, along with the erasure of Asian Americans in the media and in Hollywood, has far-reaching and disturbing implications on how white people and other non-Asians view them. It leads not only to ignorance and racism, but also to the treatment of all Asians as the perpetual foreign “Other.”
All of this drives my mission—and passion—to chronicle the important contributions Asian Americans have made in our country. I am currently working on a YA narrative nonfiction book about Vincent Chin to be published in 2020 by Norton Young Readers. It describes how the 1982 beating death of a Chinese American man by two white autoworkers in Detroit galvanized the Asian American civil rights movement.
As I look back on my writing career, I realize my first nonfiction children’s book did not happen by accident. It was fate. I will continue to write nonfiction in the hope that the struggles endured by Dr. Sammy Lee, Anna May Wong, Muhammad Yunus, and Vincent Chin will never happen again.
Paula Yoo is a children’s book author and TV writer/producer. Her upcoming YA nonfiction book about Vincent Chin will be published by Norton Young Readers in 2020. Her other books include the YA novel Good Enough (HarperCollins 2008), Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story (Lee & Low 2005), Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story (Lee & Low 2009) and Twenty-Two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank (Lee & Low 2014).