Thursday, October 17, 2019

"Living Writers" with Matt de la Peña and Chris Baron

On Wednesday, October 16th, we attended Matt de la Peña and Chris Baron’s poetry readings, presented by SDSU MFA program’s Living Writers series. Matt de la Peña and Chris Baron are both alumni of San Diego State University’s MFA program, and have been friends since their time in the MFA program together. Baron read from his novel in verse, All of Me, and Matt read from his picture book, Love. Witnessing two incredibly talented writers reading from their own work breathed life into their poetry. 

Matt de la Peña is self-described as “a working-class, mixed kid”, who like Baron, took part in sports; Peña attended the University of the Pacific on a basketball scholarship. However, he felt out of place, and says he often felt “like an imposter” both in sports and in writing. Describing his MFA experience, he shared that he “felt like [he] hadn’t read enough books.” 

Chris Baron felt similarly. Baron received his MFA at San Diego State University and is now a professor at San Diego City College. Although clearly a successful writer, he says he felt misplaced in college, even when participating in his school’s rowing team. However, Baron says he felt at home when he was writing, either on his own or for class. He is especially appreciative of the community and sense of belonging he found in the MFA program. He advised the attendees to also develop a community to be vulnerable and encouraged in.

Although both de la Peña and Baron felt out of place in college, their writing talent has shone through and to create a sense of belonging in the world of literature. Chris Baron’s published his first poem, “Origins” in 1997, and he didn’t stop there. Baron is the author of the poetry collection, Under the Broom Tree, which was published in the poetry anthology Lantern Tree, winner of the San Diego Book Award. His first novel, All of Me is described by Matt de la Peña as “beautifully written, brilliant, and necessary.” Matt de la Peña is the author of multiple books for children and young adults, including New York Times Bestseller and Newberry Medal winner “Last Stop on Market Street.”

De la Peña brought us behind the scenes of creating his 2018 picture book, Love

De la Peña explains how writing a picture book is “nothing different than writing a spoken word poem,” which is transcribed and given to the illustrator, Loren Long, to make into a picture book. Long then “works with text, in the margins, in and out of the letters” to create the stunning illustrations. De la Peña displayed images of how a particular illustration evolved into the form that appears on the pages. An image of a young boy looking out of a window was enhanced with the inclusion of a father catching a bus at dawn. Then Long drew in a brother handing the boy a plate of toast. De la Peña describes this as the first time he changed the text after seeing an illustration: a line memorializing his grandmother’s house slippers became “a slice of burned toast tastes like love.” The image was created through monoprint, a process in which a painting is imprinted onto glass and transferred to a separate sheet. This is done in layers so that the background of just one picture can be made up of several iterations of monoprint. Finally, Long paints on details such as the hair and facial expression. This effort is poignantly apparent in the following image in which a family gathers around a television, hiding a news story from the child’s view.

De la Peña shared that different audiences saw the new story as different things: Houston kids see it as a hurricane, high schoolers imagine a school shooting, and adults view it as 9-11.

De la Peña wanted to make the book as inclusive and accessible as possible for kids, both with how they look and more prevalently, socioeconomically. Although a seemingly simple book, he describes the hard work and thoughtfulness he put into his picture book. Peña shows kids that love isn’t always simple: “If you’re writing about love for kids, you write about… hardships” he says. He shows parents working long hours in the book, and shows some difficulties families may face, such as alcoholism. The mention of alcoholism resulted in a clash between “commerce and art:” a large and popular bookstore chain refused to sell the book for its hint at alcoholism, but neither he nor Long desisted. Thankfully so, because the unchanged picture book better reflects real adversities that children must endure. He and Baron both emphasize “emotional diversity,” understanding that children express their complex feelings in differing ways or not at all. This astute observation is aptly rendered in both Love and All of Me.


Baron’s All of Me is a semi-autobiographical middle grade novel in verse that includes both celebrations and hardships that Baron overcame in his life. Wanting All of Me to be accessible to the wide MG audience, he wrote in verse to imbue the text with emotion, and we can say he succeeded in pulling on our heartstrings as he read aloud. A particularly touching and resonant poem is “Fat at the Beach”, which describes the main character, Ari, being too scared to take his shirt off at the beach due to his view of his body. Throughout the novel Ari comes to terms with his own identity and appearance through beautiful and lyrical language.    

Seeing de la Peña and Baron read and discuss their work was such a treat for us. We truly appreciate their time and we also appreciate the SDSU MFA in Creative Writing Program and SDSU Library for making the Living Writers series possible. 

The next Living Writers talk will be with Karen An-hwei on October 30, 2019 at 7:00 PM. 

-(SS) and (AN)

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Interview with Sofia St John, Student

We’re taking a short break from our series on Dr. Mary Galbraith to present an interview with Sofia St. John, one of the graduate assistants at the NCSCL, who discusses her experience learning creative writing from Matt de la Peña. 

Matt de la Peña is a former MFA student and a visiting lecturer in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. He is "the #1 New York Times Bestselling, Newbery Medal-winning author of seven young adult novels (including Mexican WhiteBoy, We Were Here, and Superman: Dawnbreaker) and five picture books (including Love and Last Stop on Market Street)." 

Matt de la Peña reading from his novel Mexican WhiteBoy

Which of Matt de la Peña’s courses are you taking?

English 696: Writing the Young Protagonist. 

How does Matt de la Peña’s expertise inform the way he teaches? Can you share something notable about his teaching style?

One really cool thing about Matt is that he’s a successful, published author, so he knows the ins and outs of publishing. One day he just sat down and explained a bit about what it’s like to publish, which is a topic we will go back to later. He has a ton of experience writing and publishing, so he will just have little tidbits of information he shares with us. He’s very real with us: this is the writing world, and this is how he navigates through it.

Also, because our class is mostly workshopping, he’s giving students the space to voice opinions, whether or not they are ones the entire class agrees on. What I really love is we don’t have to completely have a fully formed opinion, because the rest of the class, both the students and the teacher, will help build on it. We basically are given free rein to discuss anything in someone’s work. I had one workshop where it seemed some of the class loved part of my work, and some of the class really didn’t, and like most aspects of writing, there’s not really a right or wrong. He lets us come to terms with what each of us think is “good” writing, because there’s no real way to define it, no matter how many classes we take or pieces we write. 

What topics have been your favorite so far?

One of the most fascinating (and most difficult) topics was on narrative restraint, which is letting the story carry itself. I admire the writer who has achieved narrative restraint. Maybe because I am also an academic writer, I feel like I need to control the character’s every motion and word, but that’s really not fun for either the reader or the writer. In academic writing, we point out almost every detail we discover which the author has carefully plotted out. In creative writing, however, we are the ones planting those details for the reader or scholar to find, and for me, it’s so difficult to make writing subtle, but he’s really pushing us to let go of what others interpret from our writing and not try to force an interpretation on the reader, which I really am fascinated by. All those subtle little details we read in books are not as easy to write as they look. I really don’t think there’s much that is effortless in writing.

How does it feel to be an MA student taking an MFA course? What are you gaining as a scholar by taking this course?

Honestly it was really intimidating at first, and even now it’s still a little scary. I believe there is one other MA besides me, but the two of us are surrounded by these insanely talented, creative writers who may have been studying creative writing for two years in their MFA. However, I quickly felt at home in the class; we are all scholars who love writing and want to learn how to be better writers. In that class, we’re all writers.

Last week I had my first workshop, where everyone reads your work and talks about it for a while, and it’s honestly the most terrifying and humbling experience. I’m showing what I see as basically my child and it is being examined and discussed by 10+ people, most of who have been studying the art of creative writing for quite a while.

As a scholar, it reminds me how much love and time and effort are put into this work, and also it reminds me how vulnerable authors are to scholars. Last year I spent a couple months pretty intensely writing about and poring over a book I was really passionate about, and I found some interviews from the author about how a lot of the book is based on his real life. I’m a bit wary to use the study of biographical influence sometimes, but I saw this author’s grief in the book that he is putting out for anyone to read. I tend to forget there is a mind, a heart, behind every writing I encounter, whether it be a picture book or an academic, analytical text. On the other hand, when we’re the ones writing it’s really hard to not be emotional about some aspect of our piece.

I’m also reminded how vulnerable my own writing is. I’m experiencing those emotions of writing, and the difficulty of putting those emotions to the page, and after all that, I show it to a class full of people who for the most part I met one month ago. Academic writing can sometimes seem cold and calculated, but it’s not. Academic writing can be just as vulnerable as creative writing, and really, in learning about creative writing, I’m realizing how creative academic writing is.  

As a literature scholar, sometimes it is easy to forget that the author’s lived experiences influence the work that they produce. Having met and studied under an author, how does it impact the way you read his works?

I haven’t read many of his works yet, but I have read “Last Stop on Market Street” by Matt. Knowing Matt humanizes the author of course, and I am able to appreciate all the hard work that goes into his writing. We mostly only see books when they are sold: finished, perfected, every t crossed every i dotted; in this class we get little insights into all of the emotions behind writing a work. It makes the work so much more dimensional; I want to know every meaning behind the words. 

What works have you produced in this course so far? How do you feel about them, as someone who studies literature?

We have only done short works in class, and for my one workshop I submitted a chapter of my novel I finished last year. I’m somewhat happy with my chapter, but after my workshop I am seeing a lot of work that needs to be done. It’s been four days since my workshop, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how it would be perceived by an audience beyond our class, and that’s terrifying to think of. I honestly have really mixed feelings about how my own creative writing is, and I think that might be something a lot of writers experience. Part of me thinks what I have written is good, but another part of me just thinks about how I could make it better.

I feel that my work is never done, there is always something to tinker with in writing, whether it be academic or creative. Honestly, if someone were to ask if reading my book would be enjoyable, I would have no clue how to answer. Overall though, I think getting this strong basis in creative writing, especially by studying young protagonists, I am reminded how dimensional books are, and I hope my writing reflects that. 

Thank you so much, Sofia! We loved hearing about your experience working with Matt de la Peña as an MA student. Matt de la Peña will be speaking alongside Chris Baron, author of All of Me, on Wednesday, October 16th at 7 p.m. in Love Library, Room 430. We hope to see you there!

- (AN)

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Interview With Ashley Nguyen, Student

Sofia St. John had the opportunity to interview Ashley Nguyen, her fellow graduate assistant and a student of Dr. Mary Galbraith in 2018. We spoke about her experience working with Dr. Galbraith in her undergraduate class.

Image: screen grab: My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki from Dr. Galbraith’s English 501: Fantasy for Children syllabus

What class did you take with Dr. Galbraith, and when?

I took English 501: Literature for Children in the fall of 2018, and the theme was “fantasy and the touch of the real.” It was my first children’s literature class and I chose it to be my specialization course in preparation for the spring honors program. Of course, I was very excited! What was your favorite part about being in class with Dr. Galbraith? Dr. Galbraith was my introduction to a field I hadn’t even heard of before. It was fascinating to learn from someone who had excelled in the field for so long and still found new ways to talk and write about what she loves. This course was the first time I had taken a class in which I fell in love with the readings and knew I wanted to dig deeper – to read, discuss, and write more about children’s literature.

What was your biggest takeaway from the class? How did she impact your studies going forward as a literature scholar?

Dr. Galbraith emphasized authors’ backgrounds, claiming that their childhood experiences profoundly influenced the literature they would go on to create. We drew parallels between the authors’ life events and the events that their characters undergo. This concept has come to fruition in my own research a year later, as I am currently preparing for a ChLA panel on #ownvoices. Specifically, I am interested in how Asian American authors’ experiences as descendants of refugees influence their own writing, particularly in the creation of characters born in the United States.

How do your research interests overlap with Dr. Galbraith’s, if they do? If not, did you find any new research interests in her class?

Dr. Galbraith didn’t share much of her research interests, but I remember her telling us towards the end of the semester that she was writing (if I recall correctly) a definition for a dictionary. The term she was researching was “deixis.” I remember being floored by the complexity of her research, which she had never flouted throughout the semester. It was a moment when I realized the infinite possibility for the academic study of literature, which was formative for me as someone who was applying to a master’s program more out of necessity than passion for literature. I got my first look at the fun (and torture) of the life of a scholar, which I will develop into throughout my own studies as a graduate student.
I hadn’t had a specific research interest in mind, but her class provided an extensive survey of the different forms that children’s literature takes, including classics, novels, picture books, and animated movies. I was compelled by our early look at how fairy tales adapt over time, and this influenced the honors thesis I wrote in the following semester.

Does she have any unique teaching styles or aspects of her class which differ from other classes you have taken?

Professor Galbraith was very engaging and valued the input of her students, many of whom were not English majors. Her discussion questions and written assignments challenged us to think critically about books that are often relegated to the margins, as well as stories we’ve heard but never analyzed before. English 501 was notable because its texts explored a lot of difficult themes such as war trauma, adult condescension towards children, and parental abandonment.

Do you have a notable memory from class or from working with Dr. Galbraith?

The most heartwarming event I can recall occurred in the middle of the summer after I had taken her class. I had just graduated and was accepted to the graduate program, which I had asked her to write a letter of recommendation for. In July, I received an email from her which stated very simply:
Dear Ashley,
Congratulations on making the Dean's List-- that's a significant accomplishment!
Your proud professor,
Mary Galbraith

This email, to me, really sums up the kind of instructor Dr. Galbraith is. She remembered me from two semesters ago and went out of her way to send me an email and encourage me, whose accomplishments are incomparable to her numerous publications and international conference presentations. She is well-beloved to all who know her because she genuinely cares about others. SDSU is very fortunate to have a lecturer with such intellectual and emotional generosity.

Thank you so much to Ashley for helping us get to know Dr. Galbraith a little more!

This is part two of a series of blog posts in preparation for Dr. Mary Galbraith’s talk, "The Deictic Imaginary: Literature as Creation," to be held in LL430 on Wednesday, October 30th from 4:00-5:00PM. Please keep an eye out for part three to come out in a few weeks!


Thursday, September 26, 2019

Interview with Tishna Asim, Lecturer

Interview with Tishna Asim, Lecturer

September 24th, 2019

The National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at SDSU had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Tishna Asim, a lecturer in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. We spoke about the ways that her background has influenced her literary and teaching interests, and spent time discussing how Dr. Mary Galbraith’s teaching and mentoring informs Tishna Asim’s work in the classroom.

What Tishna Asim would look like as a Disney character!

Can you share with us your educational background? How did you get to where you are professionally?

I did my undergraduate Bachelor of Arts at Revelle College, University of California San Diego. I went to law school, and I got my law degree from University of San Diego. I practiced law for ten years as a trial attorney, mostly in criminal defense but also in dependency defense. And then in 2013, I hit pause on the law stuff mostly because I was tired of looking at autopsy photo – I wanted a break from some of that gruesome reality – and I enrolled here at SDSU in the Masters program in 2013. I got my Master of Arts with a British Literature specialization in 2016 and started teaching as a lecturer in fall of that same year here at SDSU. My research focus in the graduate program was Victorian crime fiction specifically, and then even more specifically it was on Sherlock Holmes, and that’s probably because of my former career – you know, law and literature. You can take the girl out of the courtroom but you can’t take the courtroom out of the girl.

And you’ve been a lecturer at SDSU since?

Since the fall of 2016 so this is my fourth fall semester.

What are your research interests? 

I’m really interested in the Gothic; I’m really interested in the horror genre to the extent that it overlaps with the Gothic and how it overlaps – all of those overlap – with crime fiction. I’m really interested in mystery and the detective genres as well. But I also really like fantasy. So Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis, and of course Harry Potter. So to the extent that the children’s literature sometimes is represented in those specifically fantasy genres, I’m really interested in that. And other YA literature as well.

You teach English 306A, a children’s literature course for Liberal Studies students. What is it like working with students who will use children's literature in their own classrooms?

The theme of the class has varied a tiny bit over time. Right now, it’s evolved into examining Gothic within children’s literature, so Gothic themes, Gothic subtext, Gothic tropes in a place that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find it: i.e. children’s literature. But I’ve also been interested in framing how child detectives work, in examining their world, so I’ve had a detectives class within children’s literature as well. In fact, if you turn around, you’ll see those are the texts that I’ve taught: Encyclopedia Brown, and Nancy Drew, and The Great Mouse Detective, and The Eleventh Hour, which is this gorgeous book. Every single page is covered with sumptuous illustrations and it’s a curious mystery to figure out who stole the birthday cake at a little eleventh birthday – it's so cute.

The poster mentioned above. 

But mostly I teach those themes as a way of investigating that the child psyche is as complex as the adult psyche, and to dumb it down for children is a disservice to them and doesn’t allow for them to have the same complexity as an adult would, which I think is ridiculous.

Teaching Liberal Studies students in particular has been very rewarding in the sense that a lot of the texts we examine become texts that they use themselves in their classrooms, or with children they encounter, siblings, or their own kids, or classrooms where they are already teaching. And I often ask the question of whether or not the text that we just completed is actually for children, even though it’s marketed to them. So there’s this distinction between capitalist marketing and whether or not this is something the kids should be digesting – and then that invites the question of censorship. What do we expose our kids to? What do we allow them to be exposed to in a classroom, in a bookstore, et cetera? And so that perspective is really valuable because they as future teachers are so rigidly boxed-in to what is allowed in the classroom and texts that are supposedly safe for kids might actually reveal subtexts that are really quite problematic, or emotionally charged, or sexual, or violent, et cetera. Little Red Riding Hood is a great example.

What is it like to create syllabi each semester? Do you often reuse books or create completely new ones?

80% of the books are ones that I’ve already taught, but every semester I include at least one new text mostly to keep me engaged. It’s something new to see ‘hey does this work’? So I do change it up every semester in all of my classes, even in my Intro to Literature 220 class, just because I don’t want to get bored.

Can you share one notable teaching experience here at SDSU?

Every day I don’t have to go to court is a notable teaching experience! They’ve all been really rewarding. And certain semester the students are – this semester in particular – the students are very engaged. They want to talk; they want to hear from each other and get that global perspective within thirty different opinions and voices in the classroom – thirty-one if you include mine. So it’s always really, really rewarding when students are as engaged as I am because I care about this. I think it’s fun, and when it stops being fun is when I’ll stop teaching. And I’ll go back to court.

What is your experience working with Dr. Mary Galbraith?

She taught a class when I was in my last semester in the graduate program on adolescence in children's literature, or adolescence in literature, or something like that, and it was fascinating because there were texts that we wouldn’t have considered to be adolescent texts at all: specifically Hamlet, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. These characters are ostensibly in their twenties and yet they embody the adolescent perspective, whether it’s through naiveté or a lack of life experience or in the case of Hamlet, he’s been so protected by his role as a prince. And we talked about development in ways I hadn't considered before. Her class was just so intriguing because it invited, it required, an alternative perspective on what is adolescence in the first place. So already you were challenging your own preconceived notions even about the theme of the class before the class even started, which I thought was brilliant. We continued to have that subversive, unsettled perspective throughout, which I thought was really refreshing. It wasn’t her lecturing at us about ‘you know this book was written in such-and-such year and this was happening and that was going on.’ It was really just an opportunity for us to totally take a text that we thought we knew about and shift it. What would it be like if Hamlet was actually sixteen? That’s kind of how it is if you read it now. Now I can’t not see him as an adolescent. But her class was so open to listening to all of our perspectives. She brought in guest speakers that spoke very eloquently about books even though they weren't traditional academy members, which I thought was great. We read lots and lots of cultural texts that again gave us that new chance at shifting our perspective. I thought she was fascinating as a professor because her own life has been marked by different landscapes and living in different places. Just being a sort of global citizen. She lived in England at one time and when I took her class, she had just come back from a sabbatical in England where she was walking in the footsteps of Dickens. It was so cool; she’s so cool. She knows what she’s doing; she knows what she’s talking about. Her units on chapter books and picture books are really empowering to the reader because there aren't a lot of wrong answers, which I think is a great thing about the humanities in general. If you have evidence, you get to be right.

Have you been able to interact with her a lot as a colleague?

Not as much as I’d like. We teach at around the same time, so we’re kind of ships passing in the night. If I see her, it’s just catching up on personal stuff, which is nice. She’s still a great mentor and role model for me on how I want to do this work. She publishes a ton. She’s pretty prolific. I think she published three articles last year. She’s busy engaging with these questions that don’t go away. Even after the child who reads this book becomes an adult, it still has impact. And she’s tracing that in really cool ways. She’s really smart.

Thank you so much to Tishna Asim! We’re grateful to showcase one of the many brilliant instructors teaching children’s literature at SDSU.

This is part one of a series of blog posts in preparation for Dr. Mary Galbraith’s talk, "The Deictic Imaginary: Literature as Creation," to be held in LL430 on Wednesday, October 30th from 4:00-5:00PM. Please keep an eye out for part two to come out next week!

 - (AN)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

It's Time to "Take the Mic"

Sometimes I feel helpless. Or rather, I can’t help anyone.

I can’t help the people who were told to go back to their country. I couldn’t help the young black man fatally shot for wearing a hoodie. I don’t know how to help children kept in cages. Sometimes I don’t know if it is possible to make a difference just by myself.   

Really, how can we do anything? How can we help those who are wronged by our country?

Take the Mic: Fictional Stories of Everyday Resistance edited by Bethany C. Morrow shows everyone, from children to adults, how to take a stand in the real world and make a difference.

The Helpers by L.D. Lewis is a particularly striking story, surrounding a young girl, Allie, during a sudden city-wide blackout. Unable to find her older sister, a medic named Sasha, Allie leaves her house and goes around the city to find her sister and giving help along the way. She first does seemingly small acts, like providing clean water to help clean a cut, then finds a collapsed building. She begins to help dig people from the building, putting aside her personal goal of finding her sister.

Allie must step into the role of a medic and helps her neighbors hands-on. She runs into a cast of characters, including a white man and a brown man fighting, and the brown man shouting, “I know you did this!” and later says “Nah, his [the white man’s] people came out here and blew all this shit up trying to Make America Great” (44), a reminder that tragedies aren’t just tragedies, they’re political, and they need to be discussed.

This isn’t the only time the current American president is alluded to. In Yamile Saied Méndez’s Aurora Rising, Aurora, an Argentian-American, encounters many instances of racism while staying at her friend Sadie’s house, these instances sounding all too familiar. Sadie’s father comments on Aurora’s cleaning, saying “I guess it’s in the blood, right?” (86). Later, he misidentifies her as Spanish: “Spanish?...But your English’s perfect!” (87).

When things can’t seem to get worse, after ruining her shirt, Aurora is handed a shirt with the words “Clean Up America”, an echo of current misconceptions of immigration. Aurora struggles, thinking: “wearing [the shirt] would be going against my family values…it would be sending a big F-You to my parents’ sacrifices as immigrants in America” (90). She later realizes “any crumb of friendship I’d had with Sadie had died too” (99). In this eerily familiar story, we are reminded of those ridiculed, hurt, and ostracized in our current political climate.

Although we can never go back in time and help those unjustly treated, these two stories served as important reminders: While The Helpers reminds us that we can help others even in small ways, Aurora Rising reminds us of why we need to help others. We not only can be involved in helping a community tragedy, but perhaps as importantly we can try to use our voices for those who may be silenced.

But how can we help right now?

We can educate ourselves on our current political and social climate and learn how we can get involved. Be involved by voting or participating in community marches. Just as important, we can learn to listen to and support others who are faced with injustice. Take the Mic reminds us we need to open both our ears and our hearts to others.

Maybe we can stop another life from being taken of another voice from being silenced, by either taking the mic, or passing it to others who can’t quite reach it.

We can do something. We can make a difference. We are not helpless, as long as we hold out a hand, a heart, a mic to others. 

Take the Mic will be published October 1, 2019.

Thanks to Arthur A. Levine Books for sending this great book to us.


Tuesday, September 10, 2019

I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn

On my first day in the NCSCL office, I did what any avid reader would do: pull book after book off of the shelves in search of something that would fill the next seven hours “productively.” Sarah Kuhn’s I Love You So Mochi was an instant eyecatcher, a bright splash of pink amid book spines in varying shades of blue and black.

For this Vietnamese American, the title’s mention of mochi and the cover’s gorgeous background of cherry blossoms evoked a further attraction: a sense of affinity with the novel. As I read the dust jacket flap, I was introduced to one of the novel's most intriguing aspects – its juxtaposition of relatable Asian American teenage experience with unexpected subversions of the expectations that are imposed upon that identity. 

The novel depicts Kimi Nakamura, an American high school senior whose painting talent has guaranteed her early admission to a prestigious art school. The stereotypical Asian American parent’s distaste for any non-STEM/medical field career would seem to be the main conflict in the story, but it is not. Rather than disappoint her parents, this accomplishment is a great source of pride for her Japanese-born, American-educated mother, who is only recently able to pursue her own dreams to be a famous Asian American artist. Her fourth-generation Japanese American father runs a restaurant that “features ‘the best of Japanese, American, and Japanese American comfort food’” (23). But even with supportive parents, whose careers convey a well-balanced blend of Japanese and American identity, Kimi is completely uninspired to paint. When she receives a plane ticket to Japan from her estranged grandparents, she leaves her problems behind to explore her motherland. Kimi teams up with a (cute) aspiring doctor whose knowledge of the sights of Japan help her figure out what she wants to do with her future. As Akira takes her to different locations such as a bamboo forest, a temple, and a pug cafe, Kimi finds the courage to face the problems she had wanted to leave in America. And alongside her, the reader learns much about Japanese culture, customs, and sights.

What I appreciated the most about this novel was that Kimi experiences Japan as a tourist. Kimi knows very little Japanese. Her lack of etiquette knowledge makes for an embarrassing commute and immediately strains her relationship with her grandmother. She recognizes immediately the disjuncture between nature and nurture in identity formation: “It strikes me how discombobulating it is to be in a place where so many of the faces look like mine, but where I clearly don’t belong” (51). Even so, Kimi’s actions expose readers to Japanese interpersonal relations: small bows as greetings, use of last names with strangers, and even slang for cluelessness.

I Love You So Mochi’s treatment of language is one of its most striking aspects. Kimi is fortunate that her grandparents and Akira speak English well despite never leaving Japan, but they mix Japanese terms of assent such as “hai” (80), “sou da ne” (102) and filler words like “eto” (81) and “ano” (106) into their otherwise English conversation. Akira even describes “gairaigo––loan words. There is quite a bit of Japanese-style English” (100). The reader can easily pick up Japanese vocabulary without a dictionary, and nothing comes off as overtly didactic.

Additionally, food – be it shrimp burgers from Japan’s McDonald’s, a secret stash of limited-edition Snickers, or peanut butter and chocolate mochi from her father’s restaurant – helps Kimi find common ground with the people she wants to get to know and experiment with what is unfamiliar.

This novel is a delightful journey through a young girl’s search for her own identity in the land of her heritage. Her sketchbook accompanies her everywhere she goes, and her descriptions of clothing provide insight into her moods, values, and dreams. With each deepening relationship, Kimi investigates how determination, culture, and her own family’s history shape the future she wants for herself. Readers will delight with each step Kimi takes, whether running from deer, strolling with her crush, or towards her real passion.

- AN

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

New Graduate Assistant


My name is Ashley Nguyen, and I am a first-year M.A. student studying English with a specialization in Children’s Literature! I’m pictured below with my new favorite novel, I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn. Stay tuned for a review soon!

As a brand-new grad student, this first blog post would be the perfect place to test out my elevator pitch... but nailing down what my research interests are has been the biggest challenge of my educational experience thus far. If I am to emerge from these two years of post-baccalaureate education with some degree of expertise in a field, which should it be?

I’ve never had the opportunity to take a course in Asian American literature, but as a Vietnamese American and an avid reader, a literary study of Asian American culture definitely intrigues me. I’m particularly interested in the voices of American-born teenagers with Asian heritage and would like to study further the identity explorations that occur when leaving a native land to "return to” or visit a motherland. I’m grateful to have many knowledgeable professors who can guide my studies and I look forward to the research to come!

As a Roman Catholic, I seek ways to orient my research towards understanding how literature encounters, grapples with, and utilizes depictions of good and evil. As I discovered in my undergraduate honors seminar, there is room in the field of Children’s and Young Adult Literature for exploring – and attempting to challenge – binary notions of morality. Under the guidance of a wonderfully encouraging professor and honest feedback from my four peers, I produced “Devious Dichotomies: Explaining the Fascination with Disney Villains.” This thesis drew from Serena Valentino and Liz Braswell, two Disney-published authors, to contrast their recent interpretations of villains in the Disney movies Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). I found that Valentino’s attempt to spotlight the villain’s backstory only indicted other characters as new villains, while Braswell’s novels rewrite the heroines into young women with traits admirable in modern times such as leadership, bravery, and agency. In both authors’ writings, the protagonist’s sense of justice prevails and the evil character is still vanquished. I conclude that the good versus evil binary is indisputably what makes Disney thrive, and to challenge it would destroy Disney’s magical ability to make viewers believe in their own happily ever after.

I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to explore my interests through my studies here at SDSU and even more so to be a Graduate Assistant at the NCSCL. I would love to engage in conversation about any of the topics I mentioned or anything else to do with this wonderful field. I look forward to sharing with you about the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at San Diego State University!


Saturday, August 31, 2019

Fantastic You (And you too!)

“Fantastic You” written by Danielle Dufayet and illustrated by Jennifer Zivion immediately caught my attention with its bright, metallic cover and smiling children jumping together, but the book is not about making friends to explore with. In a culture insisting on the importance of social engagement and social interaction, “Fantastic You” emphasizes the need for children to learn about solidarity and self-reflection.

Although the cover of four playing children seems to portray a book focusing on encouraging children to interact with their peers, Dufayet’s book reminds children, or perhaps teaches them for the first time, the need for a child to spend time with and get to know oneself.

Like many children, I loved play dates and new friends, but friends weren’t always around, so I learned to be by myself. I learned I could spend hours reading, playing in my room, or creating art all by myself. This wasn’t just a ploy by my parents to get me out of their hair; they were teaching me something far more important: being content with myself.   

One of my main interactions with kids is with my three-year-old niece, Olivia. O can be found laughing with her family, but she also can be found sitting by herself in her room, playing with her dolls. I love watching her make her own voices for her toys and develop stories that only she would understand. Not only is she having fun playing by herself, she is learning about herself and even the world around her by contemplating situations by herself. Social as she is, she gets a bit cranky without some alone time, and maybe we can all learn from Olivia. 

Although this exact situation doesn’t happen in the book, this highlights how children can truly enjoy time on their own. Like in “Fantastic You”, O knows the way to love hanging out with herself. She’s not taking a bath or building a fort like in “Fantastic You”, but she’s learning about the joys of just being alone, almost as a reset from the chaotic world. She is reflecting on anything going on, and simply being content with herself and her imagination.

Not only does “Fantastic You” teach about solitude, but also the importance of self-care:

“And when I’m sick or just having a bad day, it’s especially important to give myself extra love.
I can snuggle with my softest blanket,
Cuddle with my favorite lovey,
Or take an extra long, extra bubbly bath.” (Dufayet, n.p.)

Self-care tends to invoke vacation trips or an expensive day at the spa, but self-care is shown as accessible to anyone at any age or any time, as shown in Zivion’s illustration above of a little girl at the bath in a big, fluffy robe. Self-care can be a time for self-reflection, or a distraction from anything overwhelming in life. Self-care is a great way to check up on mental or physical states: What do I need right now? Is there something bothering me? How can I fix that?

On the next page, the bathtub overflows, but Dufayet uses this to make another important point:

“If I mess up, I say sorry. I do what I can to help make things right, even if it’s an accident. This I remember to forgive myself.
Instead of feeling bad about what I did, I remind myself:
Everyone makes mistakes. I’ll do better next time.” (Dufayet, n.p.)

We all need to take a page from Dufayet’s book: We can all forgive ourselves, and that’s a pretty important part of self-love.

Dufayet’s book is a great reminder to adults and children alike that anyone can love themselves without the help of anyone else.

Thanks to Magination Press for sending this book our way.



Dufayet, Danielle. Fantastic You. Magination Press, 2019.