Intergenerational Love and Language Barriers in Children's Books from the Asian Diaspora

A Conversation with Dinalie Dabarera, Bao Phi, and J.P. Takahashi

March 9, 2023

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Miriam Moore-Keish: To start out, I’d love all of you to just go around, introduce yourself, and say a little bit about your books, wMiriam Moore-Keish: Start by introducing yourself and saying a bit about your children's book(s).

Dinalie Dabarera: My name is Dinalie Dabarera, I’m an author and an illustrator based on Gadigal Land in Sydney, Australia. [QUIET TIME WITH MY SEEYA] is my second book. I also illustrated another book previously, called CAT WITH A COLOURED TAIL. QUIET TIME WITH MY SEEYA is the first book that I have written. It’s kind of based on a personal experience and the story itself is about a young girl and her grandfather and how they communicate their love with each other even though they don’t speak the same language.

Bao Phi: Hi, I’m Bao Phi. My family came as refugees from Vietnam in the mid-70s to Minnesota. I’ve been in love with books ever since. I’m middle-aged. I’m a father. I come from a working class, working poor, refugee family. I have four picture books for kids. I’m a writer, and rather than telling you about what all the books are, I think the simplest way to say it is, I feel like being an Asian American is very particular because we are absolutely racialized in this country and yet it is assumed we are not racialized in this country. So what that means is we are absolutely racialized but there is no pedagogy, there’s no tools, there’s no support, there’s no help to understand what that means and what that experience is. There’s no learning. There’s certainly no Asian American history in any of our curriculum. I think some of my work as a writer is to have some intervention in that.

J.P. Takahashi: I’m Jas Perry. I write as J.P. Takahashi. I write picture books. My debut is releasing in October, followed by another in 2025, so I’m still fairly early on in my career. But by day I’m still working in kid lit as an agent in middle grade and YA graphic novels and a lot of my work pretty much centers around the same values. So I’m focusing entirely on creators of color—especially ones with many marginalized identities—and that’s the common thread across both my agenting and my written work. My debut, TOKYO NIGHT PARADE, is very much a personal story. It’s about an African American and Japanese girl. She’s going back to Japan to celebrate the Hyakki Yagyō—the Night Parade of One Hundred Demons in Tokyo—with her yōkai friends before returning back to New York. I will be branching out from folklore and the very identity-based stories, but for now, this feels like where I have to be.

MM: All three of you write about connection and communication across culture, age, and often language barriers. Dinalie, you even say in your author's note in QUIET TIME WITH MY SEEYA, "when you're trying to love across languages and cultures, missteps and misunderstandings abound. Distance can grow." What do you each find is lost and gained in these relationships?

JPT: This is something I absolutely understand and this excerpt from the author’s note is something I relate personally to. While Japanese was technically my first language, by now I have lost so much of it because I only ever speak it with my mom and my sister at home. So all of the details, all of the nuances, the check-ins with family overseas have to be kind of relayed to me through someone else. And that does feel like a distancing sentiment. I am sure that when I finally go back to Japan again, it will feel very different in the way I engage and also the way people engage with me as someone who will always be perceived as a foreigner. When I was living there before, I was young enough and I was protected enough by my family that I was just any other kid in Japan. Now I obviously will be going back with much more awareness of the kind of world we’re living in. Specifically, with family, with loved ones, those missteps and miscommunications—they only exist because we’re trying. So those relationships and the connections, they never feel lesser than.

DD: I think I can really relate to what Jas is saying about going back—to Sri Lanka it’s an interesting experience. I was born there but I grew up here in Australia since I was a baby. So I guess I am very much a foreigner in Sri Lanka. Everything about me—I very much have an Australian way of seeing the world. With my parents and my extended family, and with my grandmother who this book is based on, there’s a lot to bridge. Me and my parents will never understand things the same way. Maybe children will come to this conclusion earlier if they’re quite wise children, but I think it’s only as an adult that you can accept that that’s just never going to be something you can fully work out. I have to accept that my parents are never going to value the same things or understand my perspective fully or see exactly why I make the choices I do. But also I can understand that for them as well—for both of us—because we love each other, that love is there. I can see now that it’s their love that means that they have come to accept the things that I do because they totally don’t understand in many ways, but they could have chosen to react very differently. While it’s not a perfect relationship where we’re always chatting about everything we do or celebrating every single choice that’s made, they really love me and I really love them, so we try to live in that difference in the best way that we can.

BP: Just to give you some context, when the Southeast Asian refugees from the war in Vietnam came, this wave of Asian refugees was viewed very negatively. We were blamed for the war. A lot of polls from back then showed us that people didn’t really want us here. You didn’t need to show me a poll growing up for me to know that was true, so, long story short, there was a lot of pressure to speak English, speak English. I think that’s something this country really forces down our throats. There’s so much emphasis on English and for those of us who are refugees, who know people don’t want us here, there’s so much hate. I think my parents were in this very strange predicament where they had just lost everything. They lost their country, their culture, their way of living. They were not prepared to come. They were not ready to lose everything. They did not want to come here. So there was a way in which they really wanted us kids to not forget our language, to not forget our culture. But then the other side of it is, they knew everybody hated us. I think for them, as parents, they were like, “we want you to speak the language and we want you to learn, but it feels like we’re endangering you if we encourage you to speak your culture.” Now that I’m a father to a child, there’s a way in which…you know, I speak a little Vietnamese, but it’s not nearly as sharp as it used to be when I was—like you were saying, Jas, in a bilingual Vietnamese first language household—it’s different. I already see in my kid, who doesn’t speak Vietnamese, when they were younger, I think they’re in a different place now, but when they were younger it was like they were embarrassed their parents spoke Vietnamese. And I want to name explicitly that it was an Asian language that they were embarrassed about. They were raised in a community that was primarily Black and Brown, primarily lower income—and by the way, when I say “Black and Brown,” I include Asian people as Brown. Some people don’t, I do—and so Spanish as a first language was not something that was new to them. Most of their classmates, Spanish was their first language. But they didn’t think Spanish speakers were uncool. They thought specifically their grandparents, because their grandparents seemed like such an outlier to them in the culture, that they were ashamed of it. Back then. I think they’re in a very different place now. I think the way that language is tied to culture and how we’re racialized in this country is very loaded.

MM: Jas, you've mentioned that TOKYO NIGHT PARADE is so personal to you with its roots in yōkai folklore. Each of you, really, are inspired by personal experiences. Can you speak more on what in your lives prompted you to write the texts you did? What was the process like, editing and perfecting works that are also, in part, reflections of yourself?

JPT: I actually started writing “TOKYO” because I came across some old family photos. I’m from New York, born and raised, before I started going back and forth to Tokyo. We were moving out of New York for the first time and so I was going through all my old things, my old memories, all this childhood stuff as my parents packed away their apartment. And it just brought back this flood of memories. I was reminded, specifically, of the garden in front of my grandfather’s house in Japan where I spent so many of my summers. I think since I didn’t get as much time with him as I would have liked, I always imagined him while I was in New York. I would imagine him in his garden, somewhere on the other side of the world, just growing older as I was growing up. And I do want to share some of that magic with the readers. I had that final image and the last words of the story instantly. It was all a joyful parting image, so it became a matter of figuring out the right way to get there. I had a fantastic editor, Mabel Hsu, who asked me all the right questions that peeled away the layers of what I expected that a picture book written by myself—someone like me—would have to be, and really got to the heart of what I was trying to do with the book. I think I was shying away from granting the story the same freedom to explore and experiment as any other. There’s a time and a place for adults to potentially utilize a children’s text to complicate or challenge their own beliefs but that should never come at the expense of the true audience. We should always be serving the readers. You should never be valuing didacticisms or teaching lessons over telling a story. And that is something that I really had to remind myself of as I was writing. That was always my intention, but working in children’s publishing, there’s an echo chamber of adults talking about, “hey when I was a kid, this is what I wanted to see” and yes, we love that. We love speaking to our inner child. But we’re in a different time. And that means children have different needs. We have to keep learning and evolving to meet those needs because children’s books are where so many kids start to engage with the world beyond what they’re seeing in front of them.

DD: For me, like I said, my book is based on my relationship with my grandmother. So she doesn’t speak English and my Singhalese is really poor, especially now. It’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. I was thinking a lot about her when I came up with the idea because she’s getting older. I was thinking about how our relationship has been so limited by this. But at the same time, my grandmother through my whole life, she’s been able to communicate how she loves me in so many different ways. As a child, she would care for me and my sister. And then as we got older, she was always so warm and we always had hugs and she was always so happy to see us. Even when she was in her nursing home and I would go to visit, she would call me over to sit next to her and she would take my hand and hold it. Even though it was very difficult to tell her about what work I’d been doing or how my life was going, we would just sit together. I immediately knew how she felt about me being there. I really wanted to show that—that love. Sometimes people can find it confusing, I think, if you haven’t known what that’s like, to not be able to communicate with someone through words. Like my parents as well, despite the difficulties sometimes. I don’t think we have the kind of relationship that’s reflected about families in the media, but they love me very much, I love them. Same with my grandmother. I just wanted to show that kind of relationship. Because I think there are a lot of kids who have that experience and it’s nice to see that celebrated, to see that it’s possible to have such a loving relationship despite [language] barriers.

BP: I’ll just talk about the last picture book I wrote that came out recently. It’s called YOU ARE LIFE and it’s actually a poem. It’s my first children’s book that’s a poem instead of a story, which is funny, because I’ve been a spoken word poet for decades. It’s a poem that I wrote during COVID and the re-emergence of vehement anti-Asian violence and discrimination in the wake of being blamed for COVID and the pandemic. Why I personally wrote it was I felt like I needed to do something, you know? I feel like during that time I felt like one minute I would just want to fight everybody, I was so mad. And then the next minute I would just want to hug everyone. I felt caught between those two reactions of violent retaliation and some type of love—just being the great unifier. Originally the book was titled, “You Are Not a Virus.” I felt really strongly that I wanted to meet this moment head on because I think—I’m not going to beat a dead horse—but Asian Americans are racialized and yet we are assumed to not be racialized. So one thing that happens is we’re lost to history. People don’t think that these things have happened to us. And those of us who are Asian American who study history know that this isn’t the first time this has happened to us. You don’t even have to go that far back. After 9/11, South Asian people, Arab people, anyone who presented as “Middle Eastern” were brutalized, victimized, attacked by people who assumed they were terrorists, for example. Those of us who study history know that this has happened. But a lot of people don’t. I was like, “I want to capture this moment because it happened. It happened. And I want to specifically name it as Asian American.” At the same time, you don’t want to traumatize kids, right? You can talk about these difficult things, but you have to be very careful about the language you use and how you frame it. So the editing process for it was very much about “how do I talk about these difficult things in a way that’s real, that’s necessary, but doesn’t harm the kids I’m trying to comfort?”

DD: I just wanted to ask Jas and Bao, as we’re talking about writing a very personal story, what is it like when an illustrator hops on board and is illustrating a very personal story? And, obviously, putting in their contribution?

JPT: I was very fortunate to have been in the position where I was able to prioritize finding the right home for my book, plus being able to work with the illustrator I that wanted to work with, who was also a debut. So much of it was just time and place and luck that I found a portfolio online that had just taken so many of my memories and, like, even just the palettes and moods and settings, so much of that felt like it had come from straight out of my mind. Even before I read the book, I just knew if I ever were to write something, this would be the person I’d want to work with. It’s definitely a privilege that is so hard to come by in children’s publishing and I absolutely recognize that. I think that working with someone who was also new to this side of publishing and this side of trying to reach readers, young readers in particular, allowed it to be a process where we were able to grow together. There’s always a separation where we’re not working one-on-one in the traditional publishing process. There’s the editor, the designer, the art director—they’re all kind of working as the go-between. But even so, we were kind of able to bounce off each other. I did make adjustments to the text, just from the images that I was seeing that were getting to the root of what I was trying to communicate but that I wasn’t getting across until I was able to see it from someone else’s perspective as well.  Picture books are so heavily rooted in the art that the same text would be a completely different project with every artist you work with and I think that’s what is so thrilling about doing something like this—being granted access to such a vulnerable part of an artist’s process because they’re contributing so much of their own heart and own mind and own memories to a book that started as something very small in my head. I think because of that, I feel very lucky to be sharing this work with someone who brought so much of themselves to the project. It’s a lot to ask for and it’s a tall order but it makes this so fulfilling.

BP: I’m just thrilled every time I get to see a visual artist engage my work and create these wonderful visions. It’s always really thrilling to me. I will say I feel like I’ve been beaten down by racism for so long in America, it’s just like, “don’t turn any of my characters into white people,” you know what I mean? And I say that to be funny and it is funny but there’s a history! For many years, there were many authors, whether you’re talking about books or television or movie script writers who were told by executives, “We love this story but people will not go see it, they will not buy it, if it’s Asian characters. So just switch it or figure out how to work a white dude into it.” This was not even that long ago! There was a movie about Bruce Lee and it was through the eyes of this white, male narrator, and it’s like, it’s Bruce Lee! Nobody needs a white tourist guy to Bruce Lee. But you know what I’m saying. I feel like there’s a way in which my floor is so low, it’s like “just don’t turn them into white people and it’s going to be fine.” I will say though, that honestly, I’ve been privileged. I’ve worked with four different, really talented artists who had different styles and visions and for me it’s always a thrill to see what they come up with.

MM: Dinalie, what about you, what was it like working with your illustrator?

DD: Oh, I am the illustrator.

MM: That’s right! [laughs] What was it like working with yourself?

DD: [laughs] I’m amazing to work with! Just so seamless! But that’s why I was interested. I can imagine it can be quite a different process in that way.

MM: Bao, in an article for Dispatch, you said writing children's literature is similar to spoken word poetry in that "you have to acknowledge that the audience is in some way a part of the process." How do the three of you incorporate your audience into your process? Who are you writing for?

BP: Thank you for that. My joke when I came out with my first children’s book—and this is very true—is that for two decades, I toured around the country. I had read poetry and spoken word in front of an audience of two people. I’d read in front of a thousand. I’ve read in prisons. I’ve read in front of college students. I’ve read in bars where people were hostile toward me for no reason. I’ve read at political causes where people either liked what I had to say or hated what I had to say, depending on their politics. I’ve done all of that, and yet, nothing terrified me more than the idea of reading a picture book in front of little kids. And it’s very true! But to answer your question, I think that there’s a conceit among writers that you shouldn’t think about who’s reading your book, you shouldn’t think about who’s reading your work. You should be writing towards this universal idea of art. Maybe things have changed, but back then, snooty artists would say this. Thinking about audience was gauche, it was like, “ew that’s gross, why would you?” We were encouraged to write towards a universal artistic—you know—white, male, western, Eurocentric, standard, right? I feel like spoken word artists were always…not that [laughs]. Having an audience was part of our work. And I think there’s something to be said about pandering to the audience. You never want to pander to the audience, but, it’s like, acknowledge that you’re writing for someone other than yourself. In a way, writing is some type of communication, some type of storytelling. With children’s literature, those of us who are adults writing for kids, you have to acknowledge that, because if you’re a writer and you say, “oh I don’t think about how a kid is going to receive this,” you’re just not going to go very far. You have to think about how kids are going to take this is, receive it, read it. It’s not about pandering. You don’t have to pander to kids, either. But it’s about writing to a specific audience, and I find that super refreshing, actually.

DD: I found it kind of challenging at first to think about the fact that I was writing for children, because the experience I was writing about was something I was processing as an adult. My editor had to really remind me, “think about how a child is going to experience this.” It was nice because, for children, language isn’t as much a part of their relationships as it becomes when you’re an adult. You’re not always connecting with people through conversation, which I think, is the way you do as adults, for the most part. So it allowed me to focus on the play and fun and warmth of the relationship. But at the same time, I didn’t want to totally leave out that complexity and pretend it’s a really, easy fun situation all the time. So I did try to hint at it a little bit in the text. I don’t have children myself, but I think children are aware that situations are complex, even if they don’t have the words to describe [them] or understand exactly what is going on behind that sense that they get. I guess I wanted to make sure I still included some of that. I didn’t want to simplify that completely into, “oh it’s so joyous every single day.” That’s why I was glad, as well, to include that author’s note, because I could describe a little better why it’s important to celebrate these things, and for kids as well, to feel like there is a real value in their relationships that may have those barriers. And also to acknowledge that there are these complications and it’s not always easy. I think I’m hopefully getting better at that as I go. Kids experience their lives as very complex in their own minds and I think it’s important, when we write for them, to not always tie things up in the way that is easier for adults, but not necessarily reflective of how children will experience that situation. That’s something I’m thinking about as I continue to write.

JPT: You’ve covered it, but I’m sure my own answers will change when I see my books reaching readers’ hands. It’s going to be a process. At this point, beyond the story and the craft, I’ve been thinking about the audience. I have to keep asking myself how I’m inheriting, internalizing, and reproducing what I know and how I’m conveying stories I’ve told myself and the tenets of knowledge I’ve anchored my identity to. There’s so much that I still need to challenge, and I want to write in a way that will allow kids to do the same without narrowing. I want to be able to ask questions but not necessarily provide answers. Because these are answers I don’t have. That’s a vague answer…but…yeah.

MM: All the best answers are vague, really. It’s too easy if they’re too concrete.

MM: This is a common question, but one that many creators are grappling with: In a(nother) wave of anti-Asian diaspora and anti-immigration rhetoric, what can and should the children's literature world do? How do you see yourself within it, if at all?

BP: I’m actually thankful you asked that question. I think people actually don’t bring that up enough, to anyone. And I think that there’s a lot of different things that librarians, publishers, writers, just human beings can do, right? One: acknowledge that it exists. Acknowledge that it’s racist. Acknowledge that it’s historical, that it lives beyond this moment, both back and forward. There’s a lot. We’re at this place where people just do not acknowledge that racism affects Asian American people and Asian diasporic people. We are not able to talk about how one of the pillars of white supremacy around the world is militarized colonialism and extraction of resources in Asian, Arab, Latinx countries. It affects how we are, it affects where we are, it affects all of those things. But maybe that’s a little bit to big, so what can we do? We can write stories, we can create books, we can read them to kids. We can tell kids we love them. We can ask them what they need. We can offer them support structures that they don’t have right now. There’s so much we could do. I think that there’s not necessarily a one right answer. Earlier I talked about [how] my last book confronted it head on. And that’s okay. That’s one strategy. But it doesn’t need to be the only strategy. It can also be Asian American kids just need some fun books, too, to say, yes this is happening, but we love you and lets just have fun or focus on fun and community, right? I don’t think it’s one or the other, it’s all of the above. I also really want to state clearly: This should be, like, really obvious, but any time any one of us from a marginalized community speaks up for our own people, people assume that we only care about ourselves and our own people, and what I really want to say is it’s not instead of. It’s and, in addition to. Like, as a principle, before I wrote children’s books, I wanted my kid to be exposed to and read and support stories from all people: Native American, Black, Latinx, Arab, Asian, Southeast Asian, queer, single-parent, working class, people with disabilities, people around the world, people who speak different languages. I wanted them to be exposed to all of that. So it’s that, and. They should also have these stories about Southeast Asian refugees like their grandparents. Or why is anti-Asian violence happening? Or queer Asian Americans with two moms for parents in their families. They should have access to all of it.

DD: I found this to be quite a difficult question because I think people might like to hear a different answer than the one I'm about to give. I think what Bao is saying about having books that speak to children’s experiences, if they are experiencing these kinds of things at school and in their communities, that’s really important. I think it’s important to tell stories about different types of people and to have those stories published and spread so people can read them. But I guess I also think it’s asking a lot of children’s literature: tackling these kinds of topics. They’re very big. And they’re current. It’s nice to think that children might read these books and feel more well-disposed toward people of other communities, but that’s, like, a very long lead time. You’re going to wait 20 years for those kids to grow up and start making those changes. And for the most part, audiences for these kinds of books are going to be self-selected. The influence of a book on a child is just such a tiny part of the messaging they get from their social environment. The real way to deal with these issues is as people, not just people in children’s literature—like being a part of our local politics, being in solidarity with other racial minorities. Then our work in children’s literature can be a part of that. What am I doing in life? And my work should represent that belief.

JPT: This is a big question. I think that what we are doing in children’s literature is that we are combatting silence. Within the context of Asian American identity, there are certain attitudes maintaining the notion of authentic representation or “good” representation that does have wider implications about shame and silence. In this very nebulous current state of American history and ancestral history, when [a children’s book] is positioned as an object of celebration rather than a vehicle for didacticism, it is kind of considered frivolity, like a luxury of western excess. So silence becomes this backbone of subjugated histories or knowledges. That’s kind of what I love about myth, that the things that are never said become that basis for myth in a way that is refreshing. It’s a refreshing divergence or departure from American meaning-making that we feel has to extensively serve the full breadth of the population. Because we don’t need to write a universal story! And we shouldn’t need to, but that is the expectation. It’s so limiting. And yes, so much of it does come from publishers wanting to sell a book to literally everyone who walks into a bookstore. But there are certain freedoms that are not granted to Asian authors and Asian American authors. Authors are expected to do so many jobs at the expense of the story and the book and the kids who are reading. The audience falls so low on the list of who we are prioritizing when we produce a book. It is kind of frustrating! [laughs] But I see myself within children’s literature as, just, doing what I can to work against the silence that this country, especially, just pushes people into perpetuating and accepting and feeling comfortable with.

Dinalie Dabarera is the author and illustrator of Quiet Time with Seeya. Her previous book The Cat with the Coloured Tail, written by Gillian Mears, was nominated for the Children’s Book Council Australia Award for New Illustrator, as well as multiple other industry awards including an Australian Book Industry Award. She lives and works on unceded Gadigal land (Sydney, Australia).

Born in Saigon shortly before the mass exodus of his family and many others to the United States, Bao Phi is a Vietnamese American raised in the Phillips neighborhood of south Minneapolis. He currently lives in Minneapolis with his child and their cat. A spoken word artist and published poet, Bao is also known for his children’s books. His A Different Pond received six starred reviews and multiple awards, including the Caldecott Honor, an Ezra Jack Keats Honor, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association award for best picture book, the Minnesota Book Award for picture books, and other recognitions. His latest children’s book is You Are Life.

J.P. Takahashi was born in New York City and raised by a family of readers in the United States and Japan. She loves a good adventure, in real life and in her imagination—especially when it’s as scary as it is magical. Find J.P. online at and on Twitter @TakahashiPerry. Tokyo Night Parade is her first picture book.