Friday, October 2, 2009

You know you want to see Ed Young illustrate "One Night in Bangkok".

My brother-in-law (and Laurie's husband), Matthew Amster-Burton, has written both a delicious book about kids and food and a guest post for this blog.

Looking for a picture book set in modern New York City? I can think of about a hundred. How about a picture book set in historical, mythical, or rural Asia? Plenty of those, too.

But where are the picture books set in modern Asian cities? I'll bet you can't name many, and that's a shame. It gives English language readers an inaccurate image of Asia (all rice paddies and pagodas) and robs us of a potential treasure trove of children's stories.

Why the missing books? I have an idea. Come on a short trip with me; when we get back, I'm going to recommend some books.

I went to a slide presentation by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, author of two great Korean cookbooks. She talked about regional food and sightseeing in Korea (she's also the author of Frommer's South Korea). She showed at least fifty slides, of which one or two were taken in Seoul. There were several slides of an ersatz rural community set up for tourists, like a Korean Colonial Williamsburg. About half of all South Koreans live in Seoul or its outskirts. Seoul is one of the largest, most technologically advanced, safest, and presumably delicious cities on earth.

Around the same time, I had dinner with Dan Gray, a Korean food writer who has a blog called Seoul Eats. We talked a lot about Korean food and I told him that I'd never been to Korea but really wanted to go. He offered encouragement and a warning. "You have to understand," he said, extending his arm to indicate green Seattle, "Seoul isn't beautiful."

My five-year-old, Iris, is a fan of this cartoon called Ni Hao, Kai-Lan. Kai-Lan is a Chinese-American girl whose best friends are a monkey, a koala, a tiger, and a rhino.

Recently we watched a special 45-minute episode, "Kai-Lan's Great Trip to China," where the whole crew flies to China to visit Kai-Lan's great aunt and meet a baby panda. The first thing they do in China is stop at a roadside stand for dandan noodles. I heartily approved. Then they arrive at the aunt's house, which is a rural mansion.

Soon it's time to shop for presents for the baby panda's naming ceremony, so the crew goes into the city. The city looks like the China pavilion at Epcot, only with fewer people. The funny thing is, actual cities in China look a lot like this artist's conception of the original plan for Epcot.

We read a lovely picture book called Erika-san, by Allen Say. Erika moves to Japan to become a teacher. She begins in Tokyo, which she finds overwhelming. She moves on to a smaller city. Still
overwhelming. She ends up in a rural area, where she learns the tea ceremony and marries a Japanese man. The real Japan, the book seemed to imply, isn't in the city.

Phooey, I say.

In 2000, Laurie and I went to Bangkok. It was our first trip to Asia. We brought the Lonely Planet book, some travel pants from Lands' End, and a Seattle-honed appetite for Thai food. We arrived in the city at night, breathed a lot of diesel fumes, ate some bland stir-fried chicken from a street cart, and checked into our fleabag hotel thinking maybe we'd made a mistake.

In the morning, everything looked a lot better. We found a new, clean hotel with air conditioning. We rode the river taxi up and down the Chao Phraya. We ate perfect fried fish at a restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms, perfect grilled chicken at Sara-Jane's, and many perfect things at street carts. To say that the best food I ever ate was in Bangkok would be a huge understatement. Compared to the food I ate in Bangkok, most of what I eat isn't even food.

We spent a week in Bangkok and didn't bother with any side trips. A lot of people in Seattle, especially young people, have been to Thailand, and everyone we spoke to found our trip puzzling. You mean you didn't go to the beach? To the floating market? To meet the hill tribes? Isn't Bangkok a cesspool of traffic and sex tourism?

Because I'd been to Bangkok, I knew what Dan Gray meant when he said Seoul wasn't beautiful. Bangkok is, well, ugly. There's a whole lot of dirty concrete. It's also wonderful, with unexpected glimpses of beauty everywhere, like smooth mounds of colorful curry paste at the market, orchid sellers on the street, a truck piled high with pineapples.

Rice paddies and historical Asian architecture are picturesque in a way a Bangkok streetscape isn't. Instead of seeing this as an artistic challenge, authors and illustrators (or maybe publishers) have largely surrendered. Imagine if Ezra Jack Keats looked around the streets of New York and said, "Nothing to see here; I think I'll head to Central Park."

When I traveled in Asia (specifically Bangkok and Vientiane), I saw children involved in all sorts of play, especially rambunctious, unstructured street play, the kind American parents like to lament the passing of. I'm not saying urban Asia is a children's paradise, but--like Keats's New York--it's a rich and untapped well of stories.

The few urban Asian picture books I've found have left me with an appetite for many, many more. Here are a couple of my favorites, mostly set in Japan:

* The Way We Do It in Japan, Geneva Cobb Iijima, ill. Paige Billin-Frye. Gregory grew up in the US but moves to Tokyo with his parents when his (Japanese-American) father is assigned to the Tokyo office. They live in a small apartment outside Tokyo. Gregory has to get used to rice and fish for breakfast; putting his bed in a cupboard every day; Japanese toilets; and school. This book wrings a lot of interest out of the profoundly ordinary, but my favorite thing about it is how it shows, without saying it outright, that a lot of things about being in a new country are cool and annoying at the same time. This is a perennial favorite in our house, even though the end is kind of dumb. (Also, according to School Library Journal, "some of the 'way we do it...' elements are a bit stereotypical of the traditional way of Japanese life." I'm not sure whether this supports or negates my thesis.)

* Tokyo Friends, Betty Reynolds; My Japan, Etsuko Watanabe. These are essentially vocabulary books, not great for reading aloud, but with fabulous, colorful artwork. Reynolds is the author of a series of adult picture books about Japan, the best of which is Squeamish About Sushi. My Japan has a great page about Japanese food which includes like ten of Iris's favorite foods.

* City I Love. This book combines poems by Lee Bennett Hopkins with artwork by Marcellus Hall. It does a great job of making Asian cities seem dramatic and cool. The Tokyo page features the dazzle of Ginza, complete with wild-eyed anime characters, and the Shanghai page highlights the insane Shanghai skyline. There's a fun scavenger hunt aspect to the book; on each page you need to find the traveling dog and figure out which city he's in. (Cities from every continent feature in the book, not just Asia.)

City kids--all kids--in the West deserve to know more about their counterparts worldwide. To cover one of my favorite continents, I'd like to see more good urban picture books set in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and elsewhere in Asia.

Thanks, Matthew. Hungry Monkey includes kid- and adult-friendly recipes for pad thai, larb gai, and bibimbop, as well as an appendix with kids' books about food.

1 comment:

Tarie Sabido said...

THANK YOU for this post. I agree completely!