By Edie Ching
Today we’re thrilled to welcome co-authors Martha Brockenbrough and Grace Lin as well as illustrator Julia Kuo to the WNDB blog discuss their picture book I Am an American: The Wong Kim Ark Story, out November 23, 2021!
He challenged the Supreme Court on his right to be called citizen—and won
When American-born Wong Kim Ark returns home to San Francisco after a visit to China, he’s stopped and told he cannot enter: he isn’t American. What happens next would forever change the national conversation on who is and isn’t American. After being imprisoned on a ship for months, Wong Kim Ark takes his case to the Supreme Court and argues any person born in America is an American citizen.
I am an American: The Wong Kim Ark Story is an important picture book that introduces young readers to the young man who challenged the Supreme Court for his right to be an American citizen and won, confirming birthright citizenship for all Americans.
You are both accomplished authors. How did you come to work together on this important story, and what was the hardest part of collaboration (since you both are known as independent writers)?
Martha: So much can happen inside a white van. Grace and I were headed to the same book festival in just such a van, and I’d been thinking about the Wong Kim Ark book for years after attending a book event featuring A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the American Dream by Eric Liu, who mentioned Wong in an aside. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard his story. I asked Grace whether she’d heard of him, and as I recall, she hadn’t. I’d always known it was a potential book for young readers, but the obscurity of this profoundly important American gave it new urgency.
I didn’t want to write this book myself. I’m white. I’ve never had my citizenship questioned. I also didn’t want to replace a writer whose lived experience is closer to Wong Kim Ark’s than mine is. Grace and I decided to team up so that we could bring both of our strengths together.
I know that my whiteness was the hardest part of our collaboration. The book is called I Am an American because its heart is about the right to assert Americanness—a heart that Grace had to point out to me more than once. This is the enormous problem with white writers taking and telling these stories. We don’t know what we don’t know. And it goes deeper than that, because you can sometimes stumble into the knowledge with research. The better parallel, I think, is learning a second language. Before an infant is around seven months old, they can hear phonemes of every language. After this point, though, we lose the ability to hear those tiny sounds. We might become fluent on paper, but it will be extremely difficult for us to sound like a native speaker—and we can’t hear why we don’t sound quite right. I’m sure there are exceptions, but far too many white writers think we’re the exceptional one. This is why we have to keep listening, and even when we can’t hear what’s being told to us, we need to believe it.
Grace: Yes, Martha is right that I had never heard of Wong Kim Ark’s story until that van ride. When she told me, I knew at once it was an important story that needed to be heard and shared. For me, one of the more difficult parts of the collaboration was trying to learn the ropes of nonfiction. As someone who likes to bend stories to fit my own narrative, it’s a challenge! But I’m so glad this true story is now going to be out in the world.
There are so many stories that haven’t been told yet. I know your readers will be as grateful as I am to have Wong Kim Ark’s story told. How did you discover it and was it difficult to research?
MB: As I mentioned above, it was a small point in a wonderful book by Eric Liu, the founder of Citizen University, a nonpartisan civic education organization. This sparked my interest in the history of Chinese immigrants and citizens in this nation. I live in Seattle and was astonished to learn that there had been race riots in my city, and people with Chinese ancestry were forced from their homes. I’ve lived here my whole life and never heard about them, even as I read about Japanese internment when I was in middle school. This is a catastrophic injustice. So often Asian Americans are held up as a “model minority,” which entirely excuses the racism of white people. The truth is this: white America has been anti-POC, including anti-Asian, for the history of this nation. It’s hard not to feel that this truth has been buried beneath layers of white exceptionalism and racist propaganda, which the “model minority” stereotype plays into.
I don’t want today’s young readers to grow up and feel as poorly served by their educations as I feel I was by mine.
There are many wonderful books I read over the years as I was thinking about the story. The work of Dr. Erika Lee at the University of Minnesota was especially helpful. I’m also grateful for various archives that contained photographs and maps. Many parts of Wong’s life, though, have been lost. Even his own descendants were surprised to learn of the profound impact his life had on this nation’s history.
GL: Honestly, Martha did almost all of the heavy lifting when it came to researching this book. I was able to get in contact and interview Sandra Wong, Wong Kim Ark’s great-granddaughter. Strangely—or perhaps not so strangely—she was unaware of her own great-grandfather’s history until her own father’s funeral. Her lack of knowledge echoed my own experience of failing to learn the stories of our older generations. It’s something that I hope we are starting to fix with books like I Am an American.
Were you in contact with the illustrator during the creation of the book or was it the typical separation between author(s) and illustrator? Do you have a favorite spread and if so what is it?
MB: There was the typical separation, although the process felt collaborative and I was incredibly excited to have Julia Kuo bring the visual aspect of Wong’s life to light. She is brilliant and will be recognized as a major artist in this field. I have a couple of favorite spreads—I love the one where Wong is alone against a dark background. As I imagined how he must have felt, this image evoked that with such an ache. I also love the children running by the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s an iconic background and the vividness of the joyful pack of children from many backgrounds is exactly the legacy of Wong Kim Ark and reveals the hand of history in our present lives.
GL: I am so thrilled that Julia is the illustrator of this book. I really wanted someone who could make this historical story feel contemporary, and Julia does this so well. I think her decision to use red, white, and blue as the color palette is very gutsy! It really tells the heart of the book in a visual way that I love. The spread that I think is particularly moving is the one where Wong Kim Ark is sitting in a jail cell with outlined figures. Those figures represent him during the passage of time, but they can also represent the plight of so many people who are waiting to be American.
This seems to be your first foray into non-fiction, Grace. Will there be more? And what were the challenges/joys of working in non-fiction?
GL: Good question! I actually just finished writing a biography on Maya Lin for the She Persisted series. When I researched that, I had index cards with sources and page numbers—just like when I was in high school writing a paper. I felt like I had jumped back into my teenage years again!
My biggest challenge in writing non-fiction is not to embellish and change things! Lying Storytelling comes to me much more naturally than sticking to facts. That said, it’s nice to know exactly what is going to happen when you are writing. There’s no wondering of whether your character should flee on a boat or run for the woods—the decision was made!
You mention no dates in this book until the Supreme Court decision and then add more dates in the timeline in the back matter. Why did you make that decision? And why did you include information like the segregation of schools?
MB: We’re so used to thinking of history as a list of dates. So often we study it this way, focusing on battles and themes. To me, the dates are less important—and they’re frankly not all that meaningful to our intended audience. Kids are still learning the days of the week at that age, and a date that passed before their great-grandparents met isn’t as important as things that do have emotional resonance for them. How it feels to be excluded. The ache of separation from one’s parents. The ugliness of racism. The elation that comes from asserting your right to something and winning.
When we were writing this, I used to joke about explaining Constitutional law to 5-year-olds. But it’s not really a joke, and I think this is a good approach to doing it. Law comes from human lives and effects human lives. This is profoundly interesting stuff as long as you focus on the humanity first.
School segregation is one manifestation of white supremacy, and it’s one our audience will understand more readily than something like real-estate redlining (which is also incredibly important and Lorraine Hansberry’s father took his case to the Supreme Court—someone ought to write that picture book).
We often think of racist school policies as something that only affected Black people, but it’s not true. In California for many years, children of Chinese ancestry had no public schools to go to. You can draw a line from this to the life of Ruby Bridges, and I think it’s an important line to draw. We tend to compress history. There was segregation, but then Ruby Bridges got to go to school and it was all over. La la la. Nope. School children for more than a century suffered. Chinese Americans played an important part in ending this long war on BIPOC.
GL: What Martha said!
Grace, you were recognized by President Obama as a champion for change and have worked hard on issues of diversity. How do you hope this book will open minds and change them?
GL: Asian Americans have always been seen as foreigners, regardless of how “well” they assimilated. This is particularly dangerous as it is a miniscule step from foreigner to the dehumanizing “other.” This can be seen with all the anti-Asian hate that has been occurring due to the coronavirus.
All of my books, from the ones with magical adventures to the ones about growing vegetables, have always been about making readers acknowledge Asians as fellow humans. By telling Wong Kim Ark’s story, I hope we have taken a name in history and made him human for readers. And, by doing that, hopefully kids will have a better and broader understanding of who is American.
And do you hope that other writers will follow your example when you attribute the specific place of Wong Kim Ark’s early life to not just its street name in San Francisco, but also as the ancestral land of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of Native Americans? Was this information difficult to obtain?
MB: To leave that information out of this book would have been wrong. This is a book in some respects about dualities—about being a person of color AND an American. We are also Americans on land we stole and continue to occupy, even in the presence of people with ancestral rights to it.
The information wasn’t hard to obtain. In copy-editing there was a question about how to refer to the tribe. As I understood it, house style was in conflict with the Tribe’s preference. I argued to refer to the Tribe as they referred to themselves in print. This sort of change is becoming more common as publishing slowly de-centers whiteness and decolonizes things like style; when I did my Alexander Hamilton biography, we didn’t capitalize Black. But with the Trump biography, we did. There’s more work to do and it is essential work if we don’t want books to become dated and cringeworthy.
Martha, you have written on a myriad of subjects and did both a picture book and an adult book on Bigfoot. There is lots more to Wong Kim Ark’s story, his trips to China, his arranged marriage, the confinement of his son on Angel Island. Is there any chance you will continue/expand his story in a longer book for children or adults?
MB: I would love to help another writer whose lived experience is more closely aligned with Wong’s to write such a book.
How well known was Wong Kim Ark in the Asian community? Was he considered a hero? Just an aside, my father-in-law was Ching Kim Ak and now I wonder if perhaps he was named for the subject of your book.
GL: Well, I can’t speak for the entire Asian community, but I will say none of my Asian friends had ever heard of him. And remember, even Sandra Wong—his own great granddaughter—did not realize Wong Kim Ark’s significance. He is a hero but seems to have been forgotten, at least by the younger Asian American population. I hope this book changes that.
Both of you have written fiction books that portray heroic figures. This time you are writing about a hero who lived in our midst. What are the essential qualities that make someone a hero? How do we convince young readers that it’s not all about superpowers or capes, and that they can be heroes too?
MB: Alexander Hamilton was acutely aware of his heroic aspirations. He had a book on heroes and he strived to achieve that. Most of us aren’t like that. But all of us have the capacity to live our lives fully. Wong Kim Ark wanted to see his parents and he did what he needed to do to return. When he was denied because of his ancestry, he fought back. So when life gives us an opportunity to stand up for ourselves when injustice would otherwise diminish our experience on this earth, we have to take that opportunity. The reality is, the right side doesn’t always win—and that is the type of story I am increasingly interested in telling. I think kids need to know that bending the arc of history toward justice is sometimes disappointing. But we bend it anyway. The heroism is in the effort, not in the result. I’d love to introduce that narrative pattern to young readers. Even in loss, there is gain. And the more of us willing to risk losing, the better the world becomes.
GL: Yes, I struggle with this when I see kids gobbling up superhero books and movies. Don’t get me wrong—there is nothing wrong with that type of media! But in a world where all the heroes seem to be those who win with muscles and machinery (and the most popular Asian genre is kung fu); I tried really hard to make the heroes of my books about neither. In my companion trilogy, it was important to me that Minli, Rendi, and Pinmei never solved their problems by any means of violence. All of them did great things just by earnestly trying hard to do what they thought was right. Wong Kim Ark is the same. He literally changed the United States of America just by standing up for what he believed in.
My hope is that these stories show kids that they can do the same.
How did you come to be the illustrator for I Am an American and did you know Wong Kim Ark’s story previously?
Julia Kuo: I was lucky enough to be approached by Alvina Ling for this project! Alvina and I have worked on a few other projects together, but never on a historical picture book. I didn’t know Wong Kim Ark’s story and couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of him, even though I myself am an American through birthright citizenship.
Did you have any interaction with the authors as you were working on the illustrations?
JK: Not much, but this is pretty normal as far as my own experience goes. I generally work exclusively with the editorial team and art director unless questions come up specifically for the author. Sometimes the team will pass along specific requests from the author, such as in this next question!
Why did you choose to use a map of Wong Kim Ark’s birthplace for the end pages of this book?
JK: This was Martha Brockenbrough’s idea! I loved her idea of being able to understand a little more about WKA’s life through a map of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Chinese people were only allowed to live and have businesses in Chinatown, so it’s not hard to imagine that these few blocks and its inhabitants would have represented most of Wong Kim Ark’s world.
Your use of the color red really reinforced where my eye should first look on every double page spread but there was no red on the page depicting the Supreme Court deliberations. Why did you not include any red on that spread?
JK: I didn’t set out to purposely exclude red from that page. Red was my code for Wong Kim Ark, and that’s the only spread that he isn’t present in (I imagine that the little girl in red in the last spread is his descendant). I do remember thinking that the library scene looked a little dull without a vibrant pop of color in there, and then realizing that the colors were appropriate to the content. The Supreme Court deliberating for a year feels slow and quiet, and fitting for less saturated colors.
Was there any illustration that was more difficult than any other, and is there any one that was particularly gratifying to create?
JK: Towards the end of the book, there is one image where all the justices are seated across the spread as the prosecution is making an argument against Wong Kim Ark. To create this spread, I had to draw the likeness of each of the justices and seat them in order of their seniority. This turned out to be surprisingly challenging to research, but our fact checker was invaluable here! I also wanted to draw the right courtroom background but only had incomplete views of a couple angles, so I had to rotate the existing photo reference to get the straight on view we see here.
I appreciated the details in your illustrations, the Chinese mountain painting in the restaurant, the tea canister in the window page. Did you have to do a lot of research for this book?
JK: Yes! I relied a lot on Arnold Genthe’s extensive photographs of San Francisco’s Chinatown before the earthquake. But his photos were taken a decade or two after the book’s timing, and they only represent one source of information—so I still had more questions than I could find answers for. Thankfully we had a fact checker who was super helpful not only in answering questions but also in pointing out details or inconsistencies that I would have missed otherwise!
How do you choose your medium when you approach a project, and what is next for you?
JK: I almost always draw digitally, as I’ve found that to be the most practical and efficient medium for keeping up a career in illustration. In order to earn a decent living, I need to produce a high volume of work every year; that usually means a couple books and one to two dozen smaller projects. Drawing everything digitally makes it possible to juggle this many different projects all at once. It also makes it easy to switch back and forth between different styles, and to do revisions quickly.
I’ve got a couple books coming out next year—Let’s Do Everything and Nothing, and another book about bioluminescence. These will be the first two books I both wrote and illustrated, so I’m very excited!
Martha Brockenbrough is the author of many books for young readers. She teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts, blogs for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, and founded National Grammar Day. She has worked as a newspaper reporter, a high school teacher, and as editor of MSN.com.
Grace Lin is the award-winning and bestselling author and illustrator of Starry River of the Sky, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, The Year of the Dog, The Year of the Rat, Dumpling Days, and Ling & Ting, as well as picture books such as A Big Bed for Little Snow and A Big Mooncake for Little Star Grace is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and lives in Massachusetts. Her website is www.gracelin.com.
Julia Kuo is a Taiwanese-American illustrator who has worked with the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Google. She also illustrated The Sound of Silence. Julia has taught illustration courses at Columbia College Chicago and at her alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis. She was the visual arm of Chicago’s 2017 March for Science and has had the honor of being an artist-in-residence at Banff Centre for the Arts in 2014 and in 2017. Julia is currently the recipient of a 2019-2021 Gray Center Mellon Collaborative Fellowship at the University of Chicago.
Edie Ching, a former school librarian, now teaches courses for librarians in the I School at the University of Maryland. She is an active member of Capitol Choices and former president of the Washington Children’s Book Guild. She has served on the Newbery, Caldecott, and Notable Children’s Book Committees and will serve on the 2023/24 Coretta Scott King Jury.