CHICAGO — Forty-two percent of Americans can’t name a well-known Asian American, according to a recent study from nonprofit advocacy group LAAUNCH. According to the education research organization, the Conscious Kid, out of all racial groups, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders receive the least attention in school curriculum and textbooks.
When actor and mother Sheetal Sheth searched for a storybook to read to her first-born child that reflected her Indian American identity, she couldn’t find one.
“There's very little representation. If there was, it was either culturally insensitive, inappropriate or inaccurate,” explained Sheth.
So, she wrote her own story.
Her first book, Always Anjali, tells the story of a 7-year-old girl who finds that none of the souvenir license plates at a carnival bear her name.
“Then, a boy comes and starts making fun of her and not just makes fun of her for not having it, turns it into a racist moment and says to her, ‘They're not going to have a plate for someone like you,’” said Sheth.
The book cuts deep into the idea of identity and belonging in America.
“All of my books feature just the growing pains of children because we have the same ones, and the cultural part is just folded in,” said Sheth.
And now, more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are sharing their stories to younger audiences through the Conscious Kid , an educational organization that aims to "promote healthy racial identity development in youth."
“We are often left out and we are the most underrepresented when it comes to narratives, especially in schools, and so, they thought let's do something about it,” said Sheth.
Teaming up with Asian-owned media company Wong Fu Productions, they’ve also produced a series of YouTube Kids-hosted AAPI for the books series. Spearheaded by actor Harry Shum Jr., the story-time read alouds feature notable Asian Americans like Randall Park, Padma Lakshmi and Ming-Na Wen.
“When we talk about exposing kids of different cultures, I think at the same time it's also making sure that people, kids are also proud of who they are,” said Shum Jr.
The books include representations of a dozen different Asian American communities and their contributions to the United States.
“You're able to listen to them read the stories. So, it's a great kind of thing to be with your families. Watch Padma Lakshmi read a book to you. I mean, that's amazing,” said Sheth.
With funding from Google, the 10-series book set is being offered for free to Title I pre-school and elementary schools across the country.
“I hope that people will donate, and we can do more of these series,” said Shum Jr.
At the same time, AAPI leaders are calling for more representation in classrooms and curriculum, creating just one way to counter anti-Asian bias and stereotypes.
“I think it's really time or past time to make sure that our students, our kids, are learning more about the diverse contributions of different communities to this country,” said U.S. Representative Grace Meng of New York’s 6thdistrict.
Earlier this month, U.S. Congresswoman Meng reintroduced legislation to promote the teaching of Asian Pacific American history in schools across the U.S.
“We have been part of this country for a long, long time and literally helped build this country into what it is today,” said Meng. “It's important that our students and fellow Americans know and understand this rich and diverse history.”
Sheetal Sheth’s second book in the Anjali series takes on culture and gender.
“I'm really proud of it. I'm excited for it to be out there, said Sheth. “I think it'll allow for conversations again for boys and girls to be having to deal with things that they may be feeling that they don't know how to express and to just talk about them.”
It’s expected to be released in time for the start of school in September.