IN LATE FEBRUARY of this year, when coronavirus news was just starting to dominate US headlines, my eight-year-old son was accosted on the playground by a classmate who tagged him by announcing, “You’re from China! You have coronavirus!” In the realm of playground taunts, this kind of juvenile racism isn’t much different from the many other games whereby children form and reform alliances. Yet because these antics of inclusion and exclusion are — like most games — displaced enactments of real social tendencies, the event was an unfortunate reminder of the precarious place ethnic Asians occupy in American society. I was almost relieved when schools shut a few weeks later, because at least it meant my child would be shielded from further confrontations that singled him out by race and blamed him for things for which no single person — let alone a child — bears responsibility.
Now, at least seven months into a seemingly endless global pandemic, and as the option of my children returning to school is fraught with more anxiety and potential dangers than the occasional racist outburst, I am intrigued by a short book that best-selling children’s author Francesca Cavallo published in the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis. When the virus’s early outbreak in her native Italy prompted similar incidents of anti-Asian racism, Cavallo — a media activist best known for her contribution to the popular Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls series — swiftly created Dr Li and the Crown-Wearing Virus, raising funds through Kickstarter and making the work available for free online. Originally an 11-page booklet, which was rapidly translated into more than 50 languages, and now is available in an expanded print version, is notable for focusing on Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who first warned of a novel coronavirus running rampant among his patients. Dr Li and the Crown-Wearing Virus reminds us that the ethnic Asians who first encountered the virus, and soon became targets of racism, have also been forgotten, equally as quickly, in the wake of the roiling protests over racial injustice that have compounded the upheavals of this terrible year.
The interlocked events of pandemic and social protest have demonstrated how consequential today’s youth are, even as Asian Americans are consistently left out of press coverage and cultural recognition. The vast majority of the protesters who poured into the streets after George Floyd’s murder were young people, simultaneously more woke to injustice and less fearful about viral exposure. Their impact in this crisis year is a rare point of consensus, but while public discourse readily acknowledges the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, this racial reckoning has also failed to attend to the rising verbal and physical attacks on ethnic Asians since the outbreak of the pandemic. Children have been witnesses to — and targets of — many of these assaults: in one recent, sadly all-too-typical incident, two kids sitting in a parked car overheard their father being confronted with a series of racial slurs, and in a terrible event in mid-March, long before Floyd’s death, a crazed man in a Texas Sam’s Club stabbed an entire Burmese family, including a two-year-old child.
All these traumatic events prompt parents like me to ask: Where are the allies for Asian American kids? Despite the mass mobilization in support of racial justice, Asian and Asian American bodies have been noticeably disregarded. Just look at the many antiracist reading and viewing lists for adults and kids that proliferated in the first weeks of the protests, which tend to focus on the black/white dichotomy of American racial discourse. This is understandable in the wake of Floyd’s death and given the obvious differences between Asian and Black experience in the United States, but this focus also implicitly suggests that the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment during World War II, and the Alien Land Laws were not also forms of systemic racism. (An exception is New Jersey teacher Brittany Smith’s viral tweet, whose list of recommended children’s books included works about undocumented migrants and Native Americans, as well as a biography of Hollywood starlet Anna May Wong.) When Asian and Asian American identity surfaces in this discussion, it is often only to call out or to chide, as in comedian Hasan Minhaj’s critique of South Asian complicity in anti-Blackness, or the more subtle confusion surrounding the Hmong officer present at Floyd’s murder.
Most Asians and Asian Americans probably aren’t surprised by this invisibility, but it is disappointing in view of recent advances in mainstream media and popular culture. These include such recent audience favorites as the 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians and its social-media-savvy star, Constance Wu, and the high-profile PBS series on the Chinese Exclusion Act (2019) and Asian Americans (2020), which are mirrored, in the children’s market, by brands like the Katie Woo early reader book series and the preschool-age TV show Ni Hao, Kai-lan (2008–2011), whose young Asian American protagonists have garnered wide audiences. The prolific author Grace Lin has written many children’s and young adult books whose sensitive, richly textured stories are a favorite of parents and teachers, and last summer, Dreamworks’s animated box-office hit Abominable showcased a trio of spirited, likable Chinese American kids.
For someone who grew up at a time when far fewer of these feel-good images were available, it’s depressing to watch the pandemic erode this progress, along with everything else it has stolen from us this year. Asians are still such a small percentage of the American population that they are all but overlooked in mainstream media. In children’s literature in particular, Asian and Asian American protagonists rank, along with Native Americans, as the least represented ethnic groups. (A comparable British study notes that a child of Black, Asian, or minority ethnic background is “more likely to encounter a book in which an animal or object features as a protagonist rather than a character which shares their ethnicity or cultural heritage.”) This erasure of the brief flowering of Asian and Asian American experience in youth media, at a time when our community is already particularly vulnerable, is especially sad. As the wonderfully reflective and inclusive librarian (is there any other kind?) at my children’s school has said, “If it’s not in our kids’ books, then it’s not part of our cultural conversation.”
This is precisely why Dr Li and the Crown-Wearing Virus continues to be, despite its appearance in the earliest days of the global pandemic, one of the best and most interesting children’s books on the subject. Like Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, Dr Li is an illustrated capsule history of a ground-breaking historical figure who ignored social pressures and did what was right, at terrible consequence to himself. The book’s simple line drawings and neutral colors effectively depict the protagonist as a caring 33-year-old physician, with a messy millennial haircut, who took to the Chinese social media platform WeChat to raise his concerns, before being placed under house arrest and dying of the virus. Dr Li accurately depicts the Chinese government’s initial cover-up and acknowledges the virus’s suspected zoonotic origins, but it otherwise offers little fuel for racial-cultural stereotypes. Instead, with its powerful depiction of Li Wenliang’s heroism in warning about the dangers of the virus, Cavallo’s book refuses to condone anti-Asian racism.
It might seem strange that, in the same year of the American Dirt controversy, I am recommending another white woman’s representation of a culturally specific character. But Cavallo is an immigrant LGBTQ author who has always focused on intersectionality, and the grassroots way in which she funded Dr Li and made it available for access anticipate the populist advocacy regarding systemic racism that has spurred the recent protests. While many more children’s books about COVID-19 have been published in the past months, the vast majority of these works focus on hygiene and self-care or on basic science education about the virus and public health. None of them address what Cavallo recognized and cautioned against so early on — that false and unnecessary allegations of “kung flu” and the “Chinese virus” would only endanger Asians and Asian Americans.
It’s now widely accepted that racism is a kind of “second virus,” but that reckoning also needs to include an awareness of the continuing instabilities and unique perils faced by ethnic Asian persons and communities. Ideally, this reckoning would happen at all ages, but children’s literature offers a unique opportunity to forestall future racism and thus defeat this second pandemic. Because imaginative works foster empathy, capturing new populations when they are young is a powerful way of ensuring future change. At some point in the near future, there will likely be a vaccine against COVID-19, but eradicating anti-Asian racism will take much more work. Armed with books like Cavallo’s Dr Li and the Crown-Wearing Virus, this is an effort we can start today. Tell your kids about Li Wenliang, the heroic doctor whose quiet defiance in the face of political and physical threat epitomized the kind of social change that the late John Lewis called “good trouble.”
Karen Fang is a mother and media scholar whose writing focuses on the intersection of eastern and western culture. She is a regular contributor to the nationally distributed public radio program, The Engines of Our Ingenuity, and is currently at work on a book about the Bambi artist and Disney Legend, Tyrus Wong.