Grace Lin is the Newbery, Caldecott, and Geisel Honor-winning author-illustrator of numerous picture books and novels for young readers. These remarks, slightly adapted, were given during the Walter Dean Myers Awards for Outstanding Literature on June 23, 2022 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library Auditorium in Washington, D.C.
Update: The title of this speech is a reference to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s seminal essay “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors” written in 1990. The author sincerely apologizes for not citing Dr. Bishop originally.
Diverse books have always been under attack but, recently, the attacks have felt more vitriolic, more extreme and, frankly, much more scary. It’s a hard time to make these books and it’s a hard time to share these books. Sometimes, it’s tempting just to not make waves, to “let these books go.” So, I wanted to talk to you a bit about why we need to keep pushing and supporting diverse books—why they are so important—especially during these hard times.
And to do that, I’d like to begin with sort of a metaphor. A metaphor that starts with when I was 13 years old, when I first got eyeglasses.
Now, I did not want glasses. Very few teen girls do, of course, but I think I had a special aversion. I was already socially awkward and bookish and wearing glasses meant that I would be solidifying that “nerd” label as well as reinforcing all those other non-complimentary images of Asian kids.
But glasses were my destiny. The school nurse told me that I had failed the eye exam quite badly and notified my parents who immediately scheduled an appointment with an eye doctor, and within a couple of weeks, I found myself fitted with a new pair of glasses.
But even while sulking, as I left the doctor’s office, I found myself staring at the world around me. With my glasses on, everything was so crisp. I could see every leaf on the trees, I could see that the green ground in front of me was made of ribbons of grass. Lightbulbs had delicate wires in them. It was like a harsh light was spotlighting everything I saw. I remember feeling a sense of shock. Was this what the world really looked like?
Well, I kind of feel what is going on in the world right now is like our country just got forced to put on a pair of glasses.
Because a lot of things have been happening these last few years—Covid, the racial and social unrest with the responding rise of Black Lives Matter and anti-Asian hate, the great resignation of people leaving their jobs. And, of course, book banning.
Why? Because people are finally starting to see the world clearly.
When I first got my glasses at age 13, in the beginning it truly felt like it was too much. At first, I felt like I couldn’t take seeing it all. I would take my glasses off just to feel that comfort of the familiar blurriness, the comfort of not having to see everything with such clarity.
But even if we choose not to see things, that does not mean they are not there. I got my glasses and I suddenly saw all the leaves on the trees, I suddenly saw the legs on the spider—but, of course, the leaves had always been there. The spider had always had legs. It was just now I finally saw them. Just like now how so many are starting to see the people and issues they didn’t see before in our community and our society.
I feel that I know this is true because of how so many have seen me my whole life.
I grew up in a suburb of the city of Utica, N.Y., during a time when it was a very depressed city. And that is actually the reason why we ended up there. The hospital in Utica specifically recruited immigrants who just finished doing their U.S. residencies—new immigrant doctors—because, honestly, non-immigrant doctors had much better options than moving to a poor area, far from any major cities, for lesser pay.
But my father, an immigrant from Taiwan, did not. So, we moved to upstate N.Y. where I ended up being the only Asian girl, except for my sisters, in my elementary school. This made me feel very uncomfortable, being so different than everyone else. And one of the reasons why I was so uncomfortable was because of how the adults in my world dealt with it.
Because when I was a child, the way adults dealt with race in my community was by not talking about it.
I remember in fifth grade, after I'd answered a question correctly, a boy burst in saying, “She just knows that because she’s Chin—,” only to be cut off by our teacher.
She shook her head at him, then continued with the lesson as if nothing had happened. But we all knew he had been going to say, “She only knows that because she’s Chinese.” But we also all knew what the teacher meant with the shake of her head. We Did Not Talk about my race.
I realize now that silencing my classmate was my teacher's way of trying to create what back then they called “racially blind” kids or kids who “Don’t See Color.” But as the only Asian in a classroom of white faces, I felt as if I had this shameful secret that everyone knew, but we didn’t talk about. Instead of feeling “colorless,” I just felt like something was wrong with me.
Because ignoring race does not create kids who don’t see color. Instead, it creates kids who don’t see people of color. At least that was the case with my fellow student.
Because thanks to social media, a couple years ago I found myself reading an article from my hometown newspaper.
As I mentioned earlier, the city near where I lived was very depressed. It is better now and one of the reasons why is because it decided to be become a refugee welcoming center—in a way to help bolster the economy. Populations of refugees came to town—first Vietnamese, then Bosnian. While Utica is not back to its heyday of prosperity, the refugee resettlement center has been fairly successful and has continued.
Now if you remember, a few years ago the travel ban was announced—extremely limiting the entrance of any refugees. The center in Utica had been preparing to welcome a number of Syrian refugees but with the new ban they, of course, would not be coming. And, accordingly, the center’s budget was cut, and people were laid off.
The newspaper wrote about this in a very heartfelt way, telling it as a sad story. However, from the comments which followed, it was clear that many of the local population did not feel the same way.
One comment, however, upset me more than the others.
The comment said, “Too bad… don’t need any more immigrants sucking off the system!”
Now it wasn’t so much what was said, though it was not kind. It was who wrote it. Because the name of the person who wrote it was familiar. He was my fifth grade classmate.
Now this hit me hard because I realized that all these years, he had never seen me. Even though my father had worked hard and attained his citizenship, and we were only in upstate N.Y. because no American-born doctor wanted to work in that area. Even though I was in his class year after year after year—in the same cafeteria, in the same gym, on the same playground. He never saw me or my family. He never saw me as a friend, a classmate, or part of his community. And, if he were to see me and my family now, all he would see would be immigrants sucking off the system.
Because when we talk about diversity and inclusion, we are really talking about humanity. We’re saying that even though we may be different races and genders we all have the simple bond of being human together. By ignoring diversity, by not seeing color, my classmate did not see, could not see that we were human, like him.
So, how does this tie into book banning?
Well, it actually comes back to glasses.
When my daughter was four, our doctor told us that she had amblyopia—a very common eye disorder in kids where the eyes and the brain are not working properly together. She needed lenses that would help strengthen the weakness, help strengthen the sight and brain connection and basically fix the problem so she could see clearly. If she did not get glasses, we were told, it could permanently damage her vision.
Our books, the books that are being banned—these books are like the glasses my daughter and I wear. Just like when I looked at a tree and saw every leaf, these books help kids look at their community and see every human. These books, when read and shared, can give kids a clear, true view of the world all around us.
And I can’t help but think that not having these books can cause permanent damage. It’s those who did not have these books when they were younger who are trying to ban them now. These books are giving them a glimpse of what the world truly looks like and it’s too much for them. They want to keep their glasses off; they want the comfort of not having to see everything with such clarity.
Because the people who are trying to ban books are, in a sense, trying to withhold glasses from a whole generation of kids. Yes, some kids will be fine, but for others—those who need these books to see the world—banning these books will permanently damage their vision, maybe even damage their perception of the world to the extent that they cannot, will not recognize the humanity of their own community.
Recently, in Jamestown, Mich., because the library would not censor LGBTQ+ themed books, residents voted to defund it—likely leaving the area less of a community space, less of a voting place, and without a library at all. While there was a certain schadenfreude about this on social media (“They voted to get of the place they voted in!”), the ultimate heartbreaking message these voters sent is, “We would rather have no community at all than see that LGBTQ+ people are human.”
Where does that leave us?
It leaves us in a fight that we never wanted to be in, but one that we must win. I don’t have all the answers, but I know that we must push back against book bans. We must support our teachers, librarians, booksellers, authors, illustrators, schools, and bookstores. We must read and celebrate diverse books. And, most of all, we must get as many of these diverse books to as many kids as possible so that they can see.
This article has been updated.