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  • A Step from Heaven:On Being a Woman of Color in Children's Literature Studies
  • Sarah Park Dahlen (bio)

I didn't know I was invisible until college.1

When I was a child, I did not see myself in youth literature. My teachers and librarians did not connect me with the scarce Korean American children's books that were then available. In college, I majored in history and Asian American Studies and learned that my stories—and the stories of Chinese railroad workers, incarcerated Japanese, Vietnamese and Hmong refugees, and Korean adoptees—had been rendered invisible in the classroom and on library shelves. But in 2001, Linda Sue Park published A Single Shard, a historical novel set in Korea, and won the John Newbery Medal the following year. Also in 2001, An Na published her immigrant coming-of-age young adult (YA) novel A Step from Heaven, which won the Michael L. Printz Award. In 2002, we commemorated the ten-year anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots. North Korea was in the news, and in 2004, chapters of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) started springing up on college campuses. By the time I began my Asian American Studies masters degree program, Korean pop culture (Korean Wave or Korean Hallyu) was spreading like wildfire across the globe.

It was in this context that I first read A Step from Heaven.

I had seen my culture in many places, but it was the first time I saw myself in youth literature. I identified with the heroine, Young Ju, although I had an older brother whereas she had a younger one, Joon. My family was (is) very patriarchal, and I often felt invisible next to my brother. Like many Korean American families, we had domestic troubles, enormous pressure to do well in school, and other issues. And like many Korean American families, we didn't talk about them. So when I saw all of these dynamics through Young Ju's eyes, I almost couldn't breathe. I wasn't alone. I saw for the first time that these things happened to other people too, other people who looked like me. Whose parents looked like mine. [End Page 82] Whose mother suffered as mine did. Whose father was absent as mine was.2 Each time I read A Step from Heaven, I am overcome with emotion because I see myself, my story. A Step from Heaven is my mirror, the first and clearest mirror I have ever had.

As Rudine Sims Bishop has argued, and the Cooperative Children's Books Center data shows, young people today still have too few mirrors in which to see themselves, and windows through which to see others.3 And too many in the publishing industry, librarianship, and children's literature studies resist efforts for change; some do it subtly, and some actively fight against it. But I continue to have hope, because I also see scholarly, professional, activist pushback against the status quo.

This work is not easy, and it's difficult to do alone. At UCLA, Clara Chu was my masters thesis chair; she held a joint appointment in Asian American Studies and Information Studies, so in her I had a mentor who looked like me and who had had similar life experiences. I also had the privilege of working with Virginia Walter and Don Nakanishi.4 But as I began applying to Library and Information Science (LIS) doctoral programs, I could not find one that was both strong in children's literature and had faculty of color whose work included critical race studies (there were of course scholars such as the late Eliza Dresang, whose work on multicultural children's literature remains influential). In the end, I chose the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science (now the School of Information Sciences), which, despite being ranked the best LIS program in the country, did not at the time have any people of color on its faculty.5 However, the University of Illinois also has a strong Asian American Studies program, and within GSLIS I was fortunate to work with Christine Jenkins and Betsy Hearne, two "foremothers" who were committed to raising up...