Friday, April 10, 2020

Diversity Dialogue: In-Between by Amy O'Hanlon

The Diversity Dialogue is a quarterly feature on the SCBWI-MI Chapter Blog. Learn more and meet the committee members HERE. Read the previous posts HERE.

Artwork by Rebecca Howe

Our second quarterly post for the Diversity Dialogue blog written by Amy O'Hanlon addresses the complex issue of self-identity in our rapidly changing society. We welcome your thoughts and opinions. Let's keep the dialogue going. Stay tuned for our next quarterly post with Jack Cheng in mid-July.

by Amy O'Hanlon

Growing up, my family had a Chinese New Year tradition. We would “do hot pot.” Every year we went to the same restaurant in the same mall in the middle of Chinatown. I can remember running down the long aisles of raw meats and vegetables, daring my cousin to eat a thousand-year-old egg, eyeing the dessert table that sat next to the giant vat of steamed rice. My dad would help us cook our meat, but mostly we were left to our own devices. Afterward, the Aunties would make us all stand in the courtyard and giggle as we bowed to them and said Gung Hay Fat Choy in return for small red envelopes.

I don’t know if this is the right way to do Chinese New Year, and I am self conscious of this because I am Chinese American. Well, half. Many biracial children face this same issue of feeling like an imposter among cultures that they only half belong to. They are often forced to identify as one race or the other, depending on how society perceives them, and even then, there is a sense of being different, not quite a perfect fit. The multiracial identity for many is, at its core, a measure of not-quites and in-betweens.

As creators, we know the value of representation, and we know that there is work to be done in our industry. The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education Cooperative Children’s Book Center studied 3,134 picture books published in 2018. In those books, 50% of the characters depicted were White, and 27% were animals or other (trucks, forks, etc.) Less than a quarter of characters depicted were POC, with 10% Black and 7% Asian. Multiracial characters aren’t even on the list.

But families with mixed identities are on the rise and deserve to be represented. According to the Pew Research center, the percentage of multiracial babies has grown from 1% to 10% from 1970-2013. And as more and more families become multiracial, it becomes more and more important that these unique blendings of culture and ethnicity are reflected in our stories. I get so excited when I see a story with a White mom and a Black dad, or a child with an Indian mom and Mexican mama, but that’s not quite what I mean. It is good to see mixed families in stories, it normalizes it and integrates it into our psyche as something that positively reflects our society. There also needs to be more stories that are specifically about the mixed-race or biracial identity. Recently, a girl saw me, and exclaimed, ‘she has hair like mine!’ She knew immediately that we were both half Asian, and she was only four. Did she already realize she was not quite one or the other, that she was something in-between?

It can be hard to discuss difficult topics in our stories. I constantly struggle with the self doubt that tells me that my experiences don’t count, and I need to remind myself that the reason we tell these important stories is to ensure that the children of the future don’t feel the same. When I was a child, I couldn’t find characters who shared my experiences, and it’s heartening to see that these days, there are some great kid lit stories that explore what it means to be biracial. A worried mom was looking for a book for her daughter, and she was so pleased to find Mixed! by Arree Chung. The new middle grade novel Prairie Lotus features a half Chinese American girl in the late 1800s America, and is Linda Sue Park’s response to how Laura Ingalls did not reflect her when she was a girl. But there’s still a long way to go and I, for one, cannot wait. I want to see more stories about different mixed cultures, about different definitions of identity. When children see different kinds of characters, it leads to empathy and understanding. I want my stories to showcase and celebrate the same.

Books about being Mixed Race:

Picture Books:

Middle Grade:

To learn more:

Amy O'Hanlon is from San Ramon, California, and is the only illustrator in a family of musicians. She began studying art at Humboldt State before running away to England in 2015 for a Masters program at Kingston School of Art. After graduating with honors, Amy had the opportunity to do stage projection design for several Bay Area musicals, and has worked as an illustrator for self published authors. She currently works as a bookseller at Bookbug & This is a Bookstore in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Amy is inspired by the fantasy in everyday life, and loves nothing more than drawing all the magical things that can only be seen in the corner of her eye. She is represented by Natalie Lakosil of Bradford Literary Agency.

Learn more and connect with Amy:
Instagram @im_amyability
Youtube: this is a youtube channel


  1. Great post, Amy. I totally agree with you about the need for more books about kids who are biracial and all sorts of different family situations. There are so many different mixed families.

    My daughter's is unusual too. My late husband and I adopted her from China when she was a baby, and we spent a lot of time trying to celebrate holidays and teach her about her culture. My husband was Mexican-American and we are still very much apart of that family. She and I both identify more as Mexican-Americans. We have a melting pot of identities and there were not really any books with kids like her when she was growing up. And even though she is Hispanic by family, society doesn't recognize that when it comes to things like scholarships for Hispanic kids because by blood she's Chinese. She's in-between like you describe. Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Thank you for sharing too! It can be comforting to realize how many people fit in the nebulous in-between spaces of identity and are asking the same questions about themselves and their stories. I'm so sorry your daughter is faced with these challenges, but I'm positive she's helped by your care and understanding.

  2. Thanks Amy for sharing your story. I enjoyed learning about Chinese traditions and your rich history. It's great that you shine light on "mixed families with mixed identities." There's something naturally heartwarming about seeing kids pick up a book and feeling it relates to them.

    1. So true, Angela. I think the first time I heard this was Grace Lin doing a Ted Talk– that books should be both windows and mirrors. They can help you see yourself, and they can help you see beyond yourself.

  3. Natalie, may your daughter's unique background encourage her to shine brightly

  4. What a wonderful, enlightening post, Amy. I hope your call to action resonates with our talented SCBWI-MI community and the happy result is many stellar books for children!

    1. Yes! This community has done, and I'm sure will continue to produce so many stellar books! Thank you, Carrie.

  5. This is a lovely, informative post. Thank you, Amy. I identified with these concepts by being half of one religious culture and half of another. There is that feeling of not quite belonging to either one.

  6. Amy, I’m glad to hear you are dedicated to creating kidlit literature that reflects the lives of all young children, especially those who may live in the ‘in between.” Children do need to see themselves represented in books and as you indicate we have a long road ahead of us.

    Each of us is unique with our lives situated in distinct cultural contexts in a particular time and place. I too have a multi-racial/ethnic background and can say that growing up I never saw a book with characters who looked like me. None. Unfortunately, this scenario (for the most part) remained unchanged as we raised our son. But we now live in exciting times where kidlit authors and illustrators are challenging the status quo and through their stories are addressing issues of diversity and inclusivity for all children. I’m loving all the diverse books we see on the shelves today and look forward to reading the ones you list on your blog post.

    Thank you for your post!

  7. Lovely list of books, thanks so much--and for sharing your experience.