Photos courtesy of Immedium.
By Melissa Young, AsAmNews Intern
Published last month, Awesome Asian Americans: 20 Stars Who Made America Amazing! is an illustrated children’s anthology of 20 diverse Asian American figures. From Olympic gold medalists and scientists to artists and activists, Asian Americans have broken barriers and made notable contributions to the U.S.
Awesome Asian Americans was written by Phil Amara and Oliver Chin and illustrated by Juan Calle. The three previously collaborated on the The Asian Hall of Fame children’s book series about inventions from Asia.
The anthology is published by Immedium, a publishing company founded by Chin that focuses on Asian American and arts and culture topics.
Chin told AsAmNews that in the past 20 or 30 years there have probably only been a handful of anthologies about Asian Americans, and that an illustrated collection about Asian Americans was long overdue.
“We wanted to try to hit as many ethnicities as possible. Asian Americans definitely are diverse, and we wanted to reflect that,” Chin said.
In addition to widely known pop culture figures such as Bruce Lee, Jeremy Lin, Mindy Kaling and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Awesome Asian Americans features figures who have not received as much coverage, such as journalist and activist Helen Zia and “Bambi” artist Tyrus Wong.
“[We wanted to] focus on some people who may not have gotten the attention in the past that they probably deserved,” Chin said.
The writers were able to work directly with a few of the featured individuals, including Helen Zia, federal judge Dolly Gee and astronomer Jane Luu, as well as the daughters of Tyrus Wong.
“We definitely wanted to be able to unearth certain things which haven’t been in the public record,” Chin said. “We were able to successfully partner with a couple of the people in the book who vetted their bios and added some more information, which was fantastic.”
Although Awesome Asian Americans is a children’s book, it does not shy away from serious topics such as anti-Asian racism. The ways that the book’s figures dealt with racism and prejudice from the past to the present day comprise a central theme of the anthology.
For example, the book spotlights journalist and activist Helen Zia. Zia rose to prominence for her coverage of the murder of a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death by two autoworkers who blamed Japanese people for U.S. automaker layoffs.
Awesome Asian Americans also describes how Sammy Lee, the first man to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in platform diving, could not attend his high school prom because the venue did not allow Asians or other non-white people inside. He also used to practice at a local pool that only allowed him and other non-white swimmers to swim one day a week.
Chin said that present-day racial conflicts are a direct line from the prejudice that people like Lee encountered in the past. “We wanted to present each person true to their own lives, but really hold them up as lessons to what’s happening in our current day. … We wanted to make it interesting in and of itself to learn about these people, but to really make them relevant to the age that we’re living in.”
As another example, Chin pointed to Yuri Kochiyama, a civil rights activist who spent decades protesting and organizing for communities of color, and was friends with Malcolm X.
“We didn’t want to sugarcoat anything and we didn’t want to ignore anything,” Chin said, referring to Kochiyama’s more controversial beliefs such as her praise of Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. “These people can have contradictions and not necessarily be entirely consistent with my or your or the reader’s point of view, but I think it was important for us to be honest and … [show] them as people living life, which they didn’t have all the answers to, but they were on this journey not only to fulfill their own aspirations or to realize their own talents, but to do it in a public way, which may motivate other people to go on that same journey.”
The authors of Awesome Asian Americans wanted to dedicate six pages to each figure and have each profile be illustrated throughout. They enlisted artist and animation studio founder Juan Calle to create the more-than-60 illustrations for the book.
Calle told AsAmNews that while some people such as Bruce Lee and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are more universally known and therefore easier to illustrate, other figures for whom there were not as many available reference images were more challenging.
Illustrating each character was a research-intensive and time-consuming process. Calle said the half-page illustration for one person could take up to six hours, and the full-page illustration could take up to eight hours. He also gave each figure a different color palette inspired by their story and setting.
When illustrating fellow artist Tyrus Wong, Calle worked to imitate his art styles in the illustrations, paying homage to both Wong’s pastel work for Bambi as well as his traditional Chinese ink and brush horse paintings.
Calle said that while some the biographies touched on difficult or complex subjects, he tried to illustrate each character to be colorful, positive and attractive to the audience.
“I tried to think about it from the young audience’s perspective. … I tried to think as a kid, how I would like to see the character. How will the character approach the kid? For example, in the case of Yuri [Kochiyama] … I wanted to show that she was getting people together, to get the positive side of it, to make it look powerful.”
Calle was able to receive direct feedback on his illustrations from a few of the featured people such as Helen Zia, Dolly Gee, and Jane Luu. “It was very flattering to know that I was illustrating this real character, this real person. It was cool to know they had contact with my art.”
The reviews for Awesome Asian Americans have been positive. “This is the book I wish I had when I was young,” wrote Renee Tajima-Pena, filmmaker and professor of Asian American studies at UCLA. “Who knew that as an Asian American I could one day be a social media phenomenon, a CEO, an astronomer, a Broadway star or an activist? Awesome Asian Americans is engaging and entertaining, but it’s not a fluffy read. The authors frame these extraordinary lives in the social contexts of their times, making their stories our story.”
Founder of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Stewart Kwoh, wrote, “I enjoyed reading about these diverse celebrities and accomplished individuals. It is very important in this critical period of time for all Americans especially young people, to recognize who Asian Americans are, and how they struggle and contribute mightily to the rich fabric of America.”
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