Part of the melting pot: Virtual exhibit at Eric Carle Museum responds to anti-Asian attitudes

  • Illustration by Dung Ho from “Eyes that Kiss in the Corners” by Joanna Ho.  Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Image from “Priya Dreams of Marigolds & Masala” by Meenal Patel.  Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Illustration by Yangsook Choi from her book “The Name Jar.”  Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Grace Lin with her daughter, Hazel, outiside their Florence home in 2020. Lin has curated a virual exhibit, “Asians, Everyday,” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Gazette file photo

  • Illustration by Aaliya Jaleel from “Under My Hijab” by Hena Kahn.  Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

  • Illustration by Khoa Le from “The Most Beautiful Thing” by Kao Kalia Yang.  —

  • Illustration by Julia Kuo from “I Dream of Popo” by Livia Blackburne.  Image courtesy Eric Carle Museum

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2021

This past spring, children’s book author and illustrator Grace Lin got a disturbing report one day when her daughter, Hazel, came home from her third grade class at Jackson Street School in Northampton. It was shortly after in-person classes had resumed following months of virtual lessons during the pandemic.

As Lin, who is Taiwanese American, recalls the episode, her daughter said another student in her class, during lunchtime, had said that the “Chinese caused the Coronavirus” and that the student “hated Chinese people.”

In a recent phone interview, Lin, who lives in Florence, said the remarks were evidently directed at another Asian-American student in the class, who relayed the incident to Hazel, who’s 9. But even if her daughter didn’t hear the comments directly, said Lin, “It’s the kind of thing that causes alarm bells to go off.”

And for Lin, who notes that she grew up in a town in upstate New York where there were scarcely any other Asian faces, the incident sadly appeared to be part of the larger wave of violence and verbal abuse Asian Americans have experienced during the pandemic — as well as part of a longer history in the country of viewing Asian Americans as “perpetual foreigners.”

Her response? She’s curated a virtual exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art that’s designed to showcase Asian-American children and their families as ordinary Americans caught up in common activities: going to school, playing with friends, picking dandelions, and cooking and eating food at home.

“Asians, Everyday” features selected artwork from the books of 26 Asian-American children’s writers and illustrators. The artists have also contributed statements about their own experience growing up or living in America and North America, their connections to another country and culture, and what they’ve tried to share about those experiences with readers through their books.

In a short video she’s added to the exhibit, Lin says “While it has grown louder and more consistent these last few years, here in the United States the anti-Asian story of hate has been told for a very, very long time. So for those who believe in equality, justice, and kindness, we need to combat those stories.”

That statement aside, Lin says her goal with the exhibit is to sound a positive note and show the “common humanity” that binds people of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds: “I think it’s important to point out the way we’re connected and the things we share … and that Asians are part of the diverse fabric of our country.”

Lin, who has won a number of awards for her books, knew some of the children’s book artists she asked to be part of the exhibit; she approached others whose work she simply admired. Her exhibit is incomplete in a sense, she added, because she did not include the work of Asian-American artists whose books explore, say, Asian folktales or holidays, as she wanted to focus on stories about day-to-day lives of people in the U.S.

A bao, a sari, and a name

That said, “Asians, Everyday” casts a wide net by including artwork by illustrators and writers with roots from many countries: Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, India, Thailand, the Philippines, and Pakistan. And the stories the art is drawn from reflect a range of experiences, as well as some universal ones.

For instance, Canadian illustrator Charlene Chu, who lists her background as Chinese/Eurasian, includes a scene from “Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao,” a story of a little girl who makes bao — steamed buns — with her family.

“Preparing food with family is a special activity that I think many people can relate to, regardless of country or culture,” Chu adds in her statement. “I believe common threads like this help remind us that we are not so different from one another.”

Food can also be a powerful link to your heritage, regardless of where you live. In her book “Priya Dreams of Marigolds & Masala,” Meenal Patel recalls what it was like to grow up in her “multi-generational Indian home” in the U.S., in a story centered on how young Priya’s grandmother brings India alive for the girl through her traditional cooking and the “swish-swish” of her sari.

“This book is about taking pride in our multi-faceted identities — all the unique threads that combine to make us who we are,” writes Patel.

“Eyes That Kiss in the Corner” centers on a young Taiwanese girl who notices her eyes look different than those of her friends. At first she wants round eyes like they have, until she realizes hers are like those of the older women in her extended family — and then she comes to love her eyes.

The illustrator of the story, Dung Ho, who is Vietnamese, writes that Asians collectively “are different from, but not ‘less than,’ others. Embracing and understanding our unique differences, and taking pride in our own cultures, will empower us to fight for equality.”

One of the most appealing illustrations in the exhibit is from Yangsook Choi’s “The Name Jar,” a story of a young Korean girl, Unhei, who’s now in the U.S., where her classmates have trouble pronouncing her name and offer to help her choose a new one by putting suggestions in a big glass jar. But Unhei eventually chooses to keep her name and tells her classmates how to pronounce it — and she writes it on the blackboard in English and Korean.

Choi, who is Korean American, writes that a name also gives us an identity, which is “not just who we are but also who we are called to be. We should treat all names with the same respect, regardless of how different they seem or where they are from, because all names are equal.”

Looking back to this spring, Grace Lin says she was initially surprised to hear of the student in her daughter’s class making anti-Chinese comments. For one thing, she notes that Jackson Street School has a reputation for fostering a strong multi-cultural dynamic among students, while the Valley as a whole is considered progressive; there’s a Chinese Immersion school in Hadley as well, and significant numbers of Asian and Asian-American students attend local colleges.

But, Lin noted, “Even if we think we may live in a bubble, we really don’t … you can be lulled into complacency, and then you’re reminded that no place is completely immune” from intolerance and racism.

But she hopes that people viewing “Asians, Everyday” can see what she calls “the recognizable humanity in all our lives … and we can connect as familiar friends.”

To view the exhibit, visit ericcarlemuseum.org, click on the link for exhibits, and scroll down. You can also see another online exhibit, ”Now & Then: Contemporary Illustrators and their Childhood Art,” that was co-curated in 2020 by Lin and Florence children’s book author and illustrator Jarrett Krosoczka.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.