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Don’t Yuck My Yum: Delicious Kids Books That Dismantle Anti-Asian Racism
[Image description: Illustration from ‘Cora Cooks Pancit’ by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore and Kristi Valiant. A Filipina mother holds a large bowl steady while her daughter puts in noodles.]
In this post: Find children’s books that dismantle racist food shaming against American Asian & Pacific Islanders.
Referring to Asian as food ‘ethnic’ centers whiteness as the norm
Actually – stop calling all of our stuff – particularly us as people, ‘ethnic,’ ‘diverse,’ and ‘exotic.’
It’s othering, it’s fetishy, and it makes us uncomfortable. When you talk about us like this, you’re feeding into the stereotype that we’re perpetual foreigners who don’t belong here. Cut it out.
This plays out throughout our culture, but it’s easier to see in children’s literature. American Asian & Pacific Islander (AAPI) characters are almost entirely relegated to orientalist mysticism, transnational adoption, martial artists, and, of course, books about food.
The disproportionate focus on how different our food is promotes AAPI stereotypes – and our narrow role (cheap) restaurateurs. This is a direct result of the racist, xenophobic anti-immigration laws that targeted Chinese and other AAPI immigrants until 1965, and how depictions of our food (and by extension, us) as dirty and unhealthy continue that bias against that seeps into how we’re perceived in education, the workforce, and housing applicants.
So while I’d love to make a booklist not about food – We’ll work with what we’ve got.
Below, you’ll find books to start conversations about unpacking orientalism and othering – as well as a few tropes to avoid.
You might also like: Stop Lying To Your Kids About White Supremacy: A Book About Whiteness
How to raise kids who don’t food-shame (cough cough, MANNERS.)
What others eat is none of our kids’ business. Talk about lunchroom etiquette with your kids before they embarrass themselves or hurt someone. Here’s how we teach our kids to stay in their lane:
Don’t be classist.
Don’t comment about junk food. Maybe they can’t afford vegetables or the time to prep them, and pop-tarts were free with double coupons.
Don’t be ableist.
Don’t comment about a friend’s lunch if they eat the same thing every day. Don’t make a snide comment about straws. Sensory disabilities, a need for a predictable routine, allergies, digestive issues, fine motor challenges – all of these are common obstacles for kids with disabilities.
Don’t be a supremacist.
Don’t suggest that your way of life – your traditions, your faith, your lifestyle, your language, and your food – is better simply because the dominant culture accepts it as typical.
Don’t body shame:
Don’t comment on how much, or how little, a friend is eating. We don’t get to dictate what others put in their bodies.
Don’t be insufferable:
We try to be ethical eaters within our resources. We tell our kids about the impact of our diet, and give them space to choose ethical alternatives when possible. We also teach them that not everyone has the same resources and few families have access to sustainable, healthy, or cruelty-free food.
- Just don’t make a derisive question or comment about a friend’s lunch.
Talking about food is fun! We don’t we need to avoid it. Practice these scripts with a careful, upbeat tone, free from sarcasm or judgement. How to talk about food without being a jerk:
- “That looks tasty.”
- “Mmm, smells good.”
- “What are you having for lunch today?” (always follow this up with a positive statement)
Below, we’ll highlight some books that celebrate, normalize, and validate the experience of AAPI kids – along with some problematic issues to watch out for in picture books.
You might also like: 8 Radically Body-Positive Kids Books
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Handle Picky Eaters With Humor, Not Coercion
We don’t have to stuff new food down our kids throats – but if we don’t tell your kids that it’s normal for food to have smells, texture, flavor, and eyeballs, they are going to gag when they smell fish sauce. And scream when they watch grandma eat an eyeball. Rude.
Before we teach our kids how to be more inclusive about food culture – let’s talk about what we’re not here to do. We are not going to shame kids with limited diets. All of us get grossed out by unfamiliar things. We center our own experience and assume different = bad and familiar = good.
It’s also totally okay to have sensory issues, allergies, and to have disabilities and conditions that limit your kid’s diet. Respecting our kids bodily autonomy means also giving them agency about what goes into their bodies. Getting our kids to respect other people’s choices requires that we set an example and respect our kids choices, too.
How to Feed Your Parents and Little Pea use a role-swapping gag to show kids why it’s fun to try new (and healthier) food. I’d Really Like To Eat a Child helps kids see how a more flexible can help them achieve their dreams.
Alivie Eats Soup is for non-disabled parents. Coercing kids with sensory aversions is abelist abuse. Books like this illustrate why us neurodivergent folks hate ABA.
You might also like: 5 Things Anti-Ableist Kids Should Know
Celebrate Asian & Pacific Islander Food
When I visited my grandmother, she would grab my arm, test it for plumpness, and decide I was “Good fat!” or “Too skinny! Need wonton.” Regardless my status, she’d sit me down and ply me with food for entirety of my visit.
This is how I knew she loved me.
When we ask ‘Have you eaten yet?’ it’s a check in to say “I want to know how you’re doing, and I care about you” Feeding our kids is how we show that we love them. It’s how we connect them to our cultural heritage. It’s how we create an environment for a happy, comfortable, and safe childhood.
Having that emotional connection erased, insulted, and reduced to jokes and party themes hurts.
That’s why we teach our kids to be proud of our comfort food. And why we respect and celebrate others’ food traditions.
Dumpling Soup, Cora cooks Pancit, Bee-Bim Bop!, Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen, Hot Hot Roti For Dada-ji, and Amy Wu and The Perfect Bao all celebrate the creation and deliciousness of AAPI food.
You might also like: Adipositive Stories Championing Fat Liberation
For kids who feel like the odd one out
If your kid packs traditional food for lunch, there will always be that mayo-sandwich kid who wrinkles their nose and calls it disgusting. These validating books show our kids that they’re not alone.
Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story, Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas, The Sandwich Swap, Pie In The Sky
This is only one relevant scene in this but it’s also worth mentioning: On The Day You Begin (6+)
You might also like: Making Friends Is Hard – Reassuring Books For Kids Who Don’t Fit In
Validating the experience of Asian & Pacific Islander kids seen as ‘the other’
From pressure to assimilate and be less AAPI, feeling not AAPI enough, to being seen as a perpetual foreigner – the following books validate the experience of Asian & Pacific Islanders in the North American mainland.
In each of these books, we see food and eating practices used as metaphors for how we reconcile our identities with whiteness and western assimilation.
Apple Pie 4th of July, Chicken Soup, Chicken Soup (featuring kosher wontons!), Drawn Together
You might also like: Dismantling Stereotypes About Asian Indian Americans with Bharat Babies
Grandmother’s Visit, Hiromi’s hands, Lakas And The Manilatown Fish
Maggie’s Chopsticks, The Favorite Daughter, Cleversticks
You might also like: Captivating Kids Stories To Recognize Privilege
History & Symbolism of Food
Our food has a history, tradition, and is often highly symbolic. Get some insight on the cultural symbolism and historical significance of a few AAPI cuisines.
Dumpling Dreams, The Nian Monster, Magic Ramen, Chinese Fairy Tale Feasts
You might also like: Justifying Our Existence – Validating Kids Books With Multiracial Families
Stop calling our food dirty, unhealthy, and bizarre – Problematic tropes to watch out for
Here are a small handful of books that exploit bias and bigotry against API food & culture.
Content warning: I can’t really hold back the salty language when it comes to racist books.
Fussy Freya – Classist & cultural food shaming, shitty parenting
We’re strict when it comes to food, and I’m not as flexible as most American parents when it comes to shared meals. Everyone eats the same thing. If my kids don’t like what we’ve cooked, they don’t have to eat it. If they whine about it, dinner is over.
But we never teach our kids that any particular food is ‘gross.’ That kind of thinking gets classist and racist real fast.
In this story, Freya whines about the ‘gross’ food her family cooks and throws it across the room. They placate her by offering her ice cream and candy. To teach her a lesson, her grandparents cook food the author considers repulsive – warthog, monkey, and giraffe.
My grandmother watched her mother and brother starve to death. As a kid, she served up cow tongue, nibbled chicken feet, and sucked the eyeballs out of fish heads. When you know what famine means, you eat everything and you don’t complain.
As an adult, I thought the nasty jokes about our food were behind me. But I still come acrosss white mommy bloggers making digs at how disgusted they are to find our chicken paws at the grocery store. As if our food isn’t good enough to sell in grocery stores.
Chicken paws are edible. Warthogs, monkeys, and giraffes are all edible. So this book can stuff it.
The Ugly Dumpling – Reductive pan-Asian nonsense, sloppy cultural appropriation, jokes about Chinese restaurants as filthy.
I find it hard to believe the makers of this book have actually ever been to dim sum. They decided to blunder forth and use racist Chinese restaurant tropes as a platform for some convoluted ugly duckling story anyway.
In the story, steamer trays are served not from carts, but by hand. With no cover, and no plate underneath. This would be a disgusting, drippy mess. Which, I guess, explains why the restaurant has cockroaches all over the place.
Seriously! A cockroach is a main character! Yeah, they went there, with the whole Chinese-restaurants-are-disgusting-and-full-of-bugs bullshit. In this book, every one of your racist aunt’s rants about the local Chinese takeout place is true. Food is left out in the open, where cockroaches skitter around on it all day.
It gets worse. From the book: “There was an ugly dumpling! But all dumplings are ugly, you say!”
The fuck? Pizza is pretty nasty looking, so don’t come at my dumplings. Dumplings are tantalizing! There’s even a Pixar short about a dumpling and it is ADORABLE. And tasty looking.
Also pictured on the cockroach-infested tables: American-style broccoli. And colorful cocktail umbrellas… And salt and pepper shakers (?!?) Reducing dim sum to some kind of pan-Asian/Pacific Islander nonsense.
“It was a steamed bun – a golden-hearted, smooth-skinned steamed bun, exactly like all the other steamed buns in the world.”
Dude, there are like, one billion types of steamed buns, and all of them look completely different.
INFODUMP: Any bun with ‘a gold heart’ is likely custard and will probably not be smooth, it’d have a crunchy layer of baked custard on the top. I can’t even with this nonsense.
Stop appropriating my favorite things, suggesting they are disgusting, and then not even getting the basics right.
Pancakes to Parathas – Centering anglosphere cuisine as normal, racist food shaming
The entire book is biased toward American and European food, describing it as delicious. Eastern food is described in the most unappetizing way possible.
“Shocking” Vegemite is a sideshow of horrors: “they also spread vegemite between crackers and squeeze so the spread comes out of the cracker holes like little worms!”
Japanese cuisine is equally unappetizing: “their breakfast may be slimy, soured soybeans, fish and rice, and one raw egg.”
Israel’s cuisine is “homegrown” and “fresh” while food from the Netherlands is “delicious,”“perfect,” and “flavorful.” UK food is “hearty” despite also being the eggs being soft boiled (aka raw, like in Japan) with baked beans and fried mushrooms – which are somehow not described as slimy, probably because they’re made in white kitchens.
Mexico is “spicy, feisty” because of course we have to add in the spicy Latinx trope to the mix.
Text suggests the author lives in Israel “here in Israel…” The author’s bio describes how she has tried Jamaican, Indian, Israel, Mexican, and American food (notice that she hasn’t tried the food she describes as disgusting). She has nothing negative to say about the western foods she’s eaten. Given the illustrator’s other work (in Japanese only), I’m wondering if the Japanese illustrator was aware of the negative connotations that come with ‘slimy’ and ‘soured’ in English, and how they’ve been misapplied to perfectly healthy fermented foods.
Oh this was such a hot mess. We have a video unpacking the genesis and impact of books like this as a perk for our Patreon supporters. If you enjoy these collections and want to support my work – or you just want to watch me rage-laugh over lines like “They ALL eat worms in China!” in a children’s book, you can find that over here.
The Invisible Boy – Saviorism, centering whiteness
The white savior tells a Korean kid his lunch doesn’t look gross. Nice low bar for basic human decency. That’s all it takes to win the adoration and friendship of a Korean kid, I guess. Instead of empathizing with kids who get picked on for eating kimchi, the book just normalizes bullying behavior as something we should expect in every cafeteria. No disruption of systemic injustice, just a band-aid white savior coming to rescue a pathetic Asian boy who can’t stand up for himself. No thanks.
Green Eggs And Ham – Not respecting consent, harassment
While we’re at it, Green Eggs and Ham has not aged well. No means no the first time.
You might also like: Stereotype-Free Kids Stories Celebrating the Lunar New Year
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Eat More Wonton
Did you learn something in this post that expanded your uhh…brain palette(?) If you’d like help raising the next generation of kind and brilliant humans, come join us!
Get helpful articles, like When You’re Invited To a Racist Birthday Party – Scripts For Handling White Fragility and sneak-peek access to book lists in progress, such as how to use kids books to examine food, connection, and culture.
Vegemite worms forever!
This was one of my absolute favorite books as a kid, especially because I sometimes was teased for bringing sushi to school https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/120725.Yoko
This was a very interesting read. I love the book suggestions. I teach a cooking class for kids, and often feature Asian-style recipes (many ingredients lend themselves well to the class format. The toddlers all went nuts for pickled daikon!) along with recipes from all over the world.
I often encourage chopsticks (along with mini tings, shrimp forks, and kid-friendly toothpicks) for hesitant eaters to shake things up.
I believe I’ve presented it all to the best of my ability and without any culturally insensitive undertones, but I’ll be especially conscious of this moving forward. And I’ll add some of your book suggestions to my regular rotation.
My two-year-old loves Dim Sum For Everyone, by Grace Lin. It’s a very simple book that just names the favourite dim sum dish of each family member in the story, in what I think is a normalizing, non-exoticized way.
This post is very angry and judgemental and doesn’t focus enough on the positive, progressive yet apolitical nature of kids literature. I think the books on the list seem great for promoting healthy and diverse palates for little kids but the post is far too long and divergent considering that it could really lavish more attention on the books themselves and how the specific books are great for kids. I’m trying to learn more about the books but the reviewer’s opinions just kinda drown this all out which is disappointing.
This entire article is about how white folks could perhaps keep their opinions on things intimate to us, that have zero bearing on YOU.
And yet, here you are, with your opinions and unsolicited advice about an experience intimate to ME and which has zero to do with YOU.
Yet. words cannot describe the scene of me, right now. Such joy.
What a glorious opportunity, having this nonsense stumble into my space and presume to bloviate around the place makin’ a damn fool of himself.
Which is to say, my psyche is having a deep, cathartic belly laugh, tinged with exhaustion. Because dude. Your fragility is an educational treasure. Thank you for giving our community the learning experience of unpacking your white nonsense.
Friends (who are not this windbag): Let’s discuss and unpack this bingo chart of fragility.
1. Tone policing. What kind of reaction can you expect from a fragile white man when an Asian woman says things like “Cut it out.” Now picture a white man saying something like “Cut it out.”
2. Double standards & deflecting How does a white man weaponize his anger when a woman dares to be assertive and set clear boundaries about what she is no longer willing to put up with? Unpack the use of deflection here, ex: “angry and judgemental.”
2A: Bonus points: Why do white men get so angry and judgemental when an Asian woman dares to have opinions on the internet? What about this is so threatening to him that he feels the need to insert himself and insist she stop?
3. Mansplaining: Discuss – why does this dude think it’s his place to come into a space created by and for marginalized folks to tell them how they should do their work? Why does this person feel entitled to tell us that we should “focus on the positive” and be “progressive yet apolitical.”
4. Ignorance & obliviousness to privilege: What gaps in education and lived experience taught this man that children’s literature, early childhood education, and childhood as a whole should be, or even can be, apolitical?
4A: Folks of color weigh in: Is any aspect of your life, from birth through death, allowed to exist without someone having political opinions about your existence?
5. Ableism: Discuss why allistic people always feel the need to cut short a good infodump. Ex: “This post is far too long and divergent.” Explain the allistic entitlement in expecting us to simplify, package, and spoon-feed complex topics into be shallow, bite-sized junk food for people with power over us.
5A: Bonus points: Why is it vital that we respect a readers’ ability to tackle complicated concepts?
5B: What role does shutting up and listening to women of color play in dismantling marginalization and oppression?
6. Fucks Given: Estimate the fucks I give that this man is disappointed in my work. Multiply by my personal responsibility to copy and paste shallow jacket-flap blurbs in order to sell more books. Subtract from that how many folks in this community want us instead to focus on the deep, radical, complicated work of SMASHIN’ THAT KYRIARCHY.
‘Yum Yum Dim Sum’ is fine as a valentine’s book. But a couple of things to consider:
This non-Asian author is selling books (and presumably profiting off them) about Asian food. She’s taken pains to remove the Asian people who make that food. Carts approach, as if pushed by invisible ghosts. Teapots over in mid-air, pouring tea, without a hand to hold them.
What does that say, that this white author is willing to celebrate our food – but erases our people?
She wants our food, but she doesn’t want us. Something about that feels off.
Also, and this is nitpicking – the food looks seriously unappetizing. These are some of my favorite foods, they are DELICIOUS, and the tastes bring me back to holding my grandmother’s hand as we walked up flights of stairs approaching that smell on our dim sum brunches together. As talented as the maker is in her papercraft, it makes our delicious food look…kind of gross.
Is this comment in response to Grace Lin’s book Dim Sum for Everyone? She is indeed Asian. My daughter loves the pictures of the food, so many ugly is in the eye of the beholder?
You’re right. I had intended that as a reply to a recommendation for ‘Yum Yum Dim Sum’ by Amy Wilson Sanger. Someone had recommended THAT book in a different space on the same day and I got the two comments confused.
Thank you to Clara, whose comment got lost in a recent glitch while updating the website (found it in my inbox) Good catch, thank you!
>> This is wonderful! Just wanted to point out though that the caption misspells Filipina (only one p) 🙂
I expected the classics Yoko (mentioned above) and How My Parents Learned To Eat to be included here. Would sincerely like to hear the authors opinion of these.
Mostly because I just haven’t gotten my hands on them to screen them yet (I screen hundreds each week, and yet still the publishing industry outpaces me).
But also… I just haven’t been prioritizing work by white makers who profit off Asian culture. Allen Say illustrated HMPLTE, but I’m pretty sure the story itself is by a white woman, as is the Yoko series. With limited space to hold reader attention – if I’d feature anything, it’d be a book written by Say, where his voice takes precedence.
I had read a few of the Yoko spinoffs in researching books and it was underwhelming (can’t remember which ones, they just didn’t engage us enough to remember). In those few books, I was put off by Wells’s decision to make Yoko a cat.
I could be wrong, but making a cat instead of a real little girl smelled fetishistic and erasive, perpetuating the publishing industry’s insistence on featuring sooo many white kids, followed then sooo many anthropomorphic animals, and then…if you search real hard, a smattering of people of color.
When Yoko was published years ago, we still had so very few books featuring Asian kids. We’re still struggling for parity. Why was it okay to write about us, without us? To work under the guise (and marketability) of ‘multiculturalism’ without actually boosting or lifting any actual Asian people? We have so many books by white authors on what they *think* it’s like to be Asian telling us nothing new. And so very few books by actually Asian authors with insightful things to share – if only they could get book deals reserved for white ladies.
I’m not one to boost the idea of scarcity – but the publishing industry, sadly, isn’t a rising tide situation – it’s a ‘power retains power’ situation. One more white woman writing about us, without us, is one more white lady drowning out our voices.
White makers traditionally use animals instead of characters of color because they believe white children won’t read books featuring kids who don’t look like them. Using animals in our places is erasive, tokenizing, and perpetuates the message that we’re too ‘other’ for ‘regular’ kids to empathize with. like, literally, they think white girls can more easily identify with a cat than a Japanese girl. What is that nonsense.
Not wild about boosting a book by a white woman who is willing to profit off tokenism and white readers’ fascination with ‘the orient’ without giving the kids she’s profiting off full and unapologetic reflections.
Yoko also coded as…very white. She felt like a white cat who likes Japanese things, the kinds of Japanese things that are socially objectified in US culture. In Yoko, I saw reflections of my white classmates who like to appropriate stuff they like about my culture, with none of the consequences of living as an Asian girl.
These books could be awesome, but there are so many books that I’m excited to read by Actually Asian authors that I haven’t had time to screen. Yoko might offer something beyond sushi, paper cranes, and other stuff all white kids know about, but…not from the books I read.
So…priorities. I’ll bump these up in the queue for books to screen though, and try out a different Yoko book.
This was a great post! I showcased a standard Japanese meal for lunch and dinner in my book. It’s so important to realize that people have different cultural foods and nowadays those people may not look the way you expect them to. My son’s classmates were very shocked to see a little brown curly haired boy using chopsticks! LOL
Lovely! Tell us – what’s your book called and where can we find it?
Any chance anyone has some suggestions on the same topic for older readers? Like in the 8-12 range?
Thanks so much for your work here!
Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen hits the younger range of that. And outside of food – can I just say that ‘Front Desk’ by Kelly Yang is one of the best YA books I’ve read (but I haven’t read many).
Meanwhile – I’m still searching for some parents who can be in cahoots in evaluating books with older kids (mine are still under 8).
I had Pancakes to Parathas in my library cart when I read your article – I quickly deleted it, since it was apparently the opposite of what I was looking for! Thank you so much for your insight. I will add some of the wonderful ones you’ve recommended instead!