Talking To Sylvia Vardell

Dr. Sylvia Vardell, Ph.D, is a professor at the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University. A Fulbright Scholar, Dr. Vardell graduated with a B.S. in Elementary Education at the University of Texas and a Ph.D in Children’s Literature/Language Arts at the University of Minnesota. She has taught graduate-level courses in literature for children and young adults as well as multicultural literature. She has authored or co-authored more than 50 published articles and has contributed chapters to more than twenty books including Poetry Aloud Here! Sharing Poetry With Children In the Library (American Library Association) and “The Role of Family in the Novels of Lois Lawry” from Children’s Literature Remembered: Issues, Trends, and Favorite Books. She is President for the United States Board on Books for Young People and a member of the Texas Library Association. Dr. Vardell spoke with author Paula Yoo (Good Enough) in a recent interview.

YOO: Asian American "immigrant"-themed novels were quite "in vogue" in the 1980s and 90s thanks to the popularity of Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club." Now that trend has spilled into the world of young adult/middle grade novels. Why is this such a hunger and interest for these types of books, especially for young people?

VARDELL: I’m so glad to see this trend in writing and publishing for young people and I’m thrilled to see young readers respond with such enthusiasm. But I’m not surprised. My own children have grown up in classrooms and neighborhoods with close friends who are Black, Asian American, Latino, gay, etc. And we live in Texas! They are comfortable reading about characters like this and embrace trends and arts from other cultures (like anime, manga, bubble tea, and Pei Wei, for example). But I think teens (and younger readers) also respond to the themes of belonging that permeate many Asian American books. The cultural context adds richness and specificity, but all kids relate to the quest to find a place in the world, a sense of identity and fit.

YOO: Some critics feel that there needs to be more broad-based novels featuring Asian American characters in "mainstream" roles where they are not always dealing with the classic issues of immigration/language barriers/racism. How do you feel about that? Are there any new books, especially for teens, that you feel are good examples of this new trend?

VARDELL: Good question. I think this evolves naturally, particularly as we reach a “critical mass” of publishing Asian American writers. It seems to me that these adaptation and prejudice issues are part of what puts new authors on the map, as well as what other mainstream readers expect from authors “of color.” But once we move past that, we begin to see more “color blind” writing and publishing and reading. Still, I appreciate the point of view that authors and illustrators from “parallel cultures” bring to their work for young people. The story or content may not be specifically culturally based, but there are still usually signs of the author’s background in the voice, pacing, details, or art. I like that. I think it can offer as much distinction as any literary device.

YOO: Publishers now realize the importance of diversity in children's literature, particularly for teenagers who are often searching for their identity and place in society. Why do you think it's important - and perhaps necessary - for diversity in teen fiction, especially for Asian American readers?

VARDELL: Teen fiction reflects teen worlds and teenagers today are growing up in a very multicultural, even global society. Most kids live with ethnic and cultural diversity everyday. Certainly images in the media offer this—television, film, the Internet. It just makes sense that books for teens would reflect this too. In addition, young adult literature is famous for being on the cutting edge—the Printz winners (for YA literature) are a perfect reflection of this. All but one of the award winners are written by an author of color or an author from outside the U.S. Multiculturalism and globalism are alive and thriving in YA lit.

YOO: Many Asian American authors (both veteran and up-n-coming) express frustration at being pigeon-holed or labelled as ONLY Asian American fiction when they feel their books feature universal themes. Why do you think Asian American teen fiction is important for readers of different backgrounds/ethnicities to read? In other words, why is multicultural fiction important for today's teenagers?

VARDELL: I like what scholar Rudine Sims Bishop says about this. She says all readers need “mirrors” and “windows”—works that reflect their own reality back to them and validate their experiences, as well as books that provide access to other ways of being and thinking. And one teen’s mirror is another teen’s window!

YOO: Do you have any favorite books or books you think are groundbreaking/important that were written by or about Asian American young adults? Why do you think these particular books are important?

VARDELL: Although there was good work by Asian American authors being published for some time (by Yoshiko Uchida and Taro Yashima, for example), Laurence Yep is a key figure winning Newbery honor distinctions in 1976 and 1994. (He went on to win the 2005 Wilder Award for his entire body of work.) [Ed Young won the Caldecott award in 1990 and Allen Say won it in 1994, but I’m focusing my responses on novels, not picture books.] The year 2002 was a breakthrough year, in my opinion, because Linda Sue Park won the Newbery for A Single Shard, plus An Na won the Printz award for Step from Heaven. That singled a big shift, I think, with a wider acceptance and even appetite for works that reflect Asian American experiences. Park’s acceptance speech at the Newbery banquet brought us all to tears as she invited her dad to the podium and shared her medal with him for taking her to the library all those years and guiding her to read the “best books” from lists from the American Library Association. Although Park’s historical novel and Na’s compelling contemporary story were distinctively different, they both reflected powerful writing and raised important universal questions—both in richly described cultural contexts.

YOO: Where do you see Asian American fiction going in the future? Do you think it will reach the same level of mainstream acceptance as African American literature has today (witness the mainstream popularity of writers from adult novelist Toni Morisson to children's novelist Julius Lester?

VARDELL: Definitely. I think Asian American literature for young people is well on its way to mainstream popularity and success. Not only are there more works available (critical mass is important), but the quality is also very strong with authors and illustrators experimenting with a variety of interesting new formats. Gene Luen Yang’s (Printz winning) graphic novel American Born Chinese, is one example, and Grace Lin’s novels for younger readers beginning with The Year of the Dog blending story and sketches, is another. Next: I’d love to see even more humor and poetry for young people. That would add diversity to the diversity!