We all know the history of America, right? Well… No. Not really. As has become abundantly clear through increased public discussions, history textbooks tend to skip over or ignore huge chunks of the cultural history of the United States. And nowhere is that more apparent than when it comes to the long history of AAPI people in America.
A new book (the first of three planned volumes) is looking to change that. Titled Fighting to Belong!, the graphic novel comes from The Asian American Foundation (TAAF) and Third State Books in association with Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change (LAAUNCH) and The Asian American Education Project. It’s written by Amy Chu and Alexander Chang, and illustrated by Louie Chin.
In the book, a group of school kids meets a tour guide/temporal magician who takes them to some of the less discussed periods of American history to show that those of AAPI descent have long been an integral part of the country… And that anti-AAPI hate isn’t something new. It is, unfortunately, woven into the fabric of America.
“What we cover in this book was vetted by academics, middle school teachers, and historians and is what students at this level need to know and understand about the long history of Asians in the US,” Chu told Comic Book Club over email. “There’s a lot on the cutting floor but we’re covering a lot more than any American history textbook normally covers.”
To find out much more about the book, including why time travel, read on.
Comic Book Club: I love the conceit here, of traveling through time to have these characters observe moments in history… What led to this approach, versus, say, Quantum Leap style getting involved, or keeping it in the modern era?
Amy Chu: As a Doctor Who fan, sure I think it makes the story more interesting and interactive if the kids go back in time, but honestly it’s acknowledging the popularity of The Magic Schoolbus with kids and that this formula works.
You’ve got a few different kids on this tour – what was important about the mix of characters here?
We strongly felt these kids needed to reflect what America looks like today. The stuff that you and I grew up with (aside from Star Trek) there would be one token minority character, and that’s so obviously outdated.
A lot of thought went into Sammy, Joe, Tiana, and Padmini’s personalities and backgrounds and their interactions with each other. Hopefully, every reader identifies with at least one or two of these kids.
Similarly, having a casual magician as a tour guide is a fun choice… Can you talk about crafting his character in particular?
We needed a “Time Lord” kind of character who could take the kids around but needed someone who would be closer to the kids and less of an adult so it made sense to make him a student too, albeit a doctoral student. And making him Japanese on his father’s side allows us to explore the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII with a more personal angle (spoiler!).
Obviously, you’re covering an enormous span of history in this book, and so have to pick and choose. Why were the various points in time important to you? And were there any left on the cutting room floor, so to speak?
There was a lot of back and forth but ultimately this is a 101. What we cover in this book was vetted by academics, middle school teachers, and historians and is what students at this level need to know and understand about the long history of Asians in the US. There’s a lot on the cutting floor but we’re covering a lot more than any American history textbook normally covers.
Similarly, I believe (correct me if I’m wrong!) there are 75 different countries covered by the term AAPI, which covers even more cultures and sub-groups — something you talk about in the book. That said, you’ve got three volumes to cover numerous countries of origin and various cultures, so how do you focus on which is important, and when, when you’re crafting a narrative?
Same answer as above–a LOT of knowledgeable folks are consulted on this. It certainly would make my life easier if I got to pick and choose what made the best story…
You’re also dealing with some very serious subjects. I’m paraphrasing, but our tour guide notes that you can’t ignore the bad parts of history, which is true – but at the same time, you’re doing a book aimed at school-aged kids. So what’s important in terms of modulating how you recount the events, per the age group? What can you include, or not?
I think sometimes we don’t give children enough credit about discussing difficult issues. What’s more important to me, at least, is that we don’t sensationalize or depict events in a visually distracting way that takes us away from what is supposed to be a history lesson.
The dialogue and back and forth between the characters is, I’d venture, pretty important in terms of not making this feel like a didactic history lesson. How do you hope younger readers engage with these sections of the book? Have you beta-tested with any real children yet?
We did beta it with several schools; so what you see incorporates real kids’ feedback, which was tremendously helpful. Interestingly, while several adults raised the issue, no kid questioned the magic in the story.
There’s a pretty big cliffhanger here at the end! How different will the plot and execution of Volume 2 be? What can you tease?
We’re going to meet and learn a lot more about Kenji and the paternal side of his family, and Tiana is really going to step up. After all, her straight A streak might be in jeopardy here!
I love the extensive back matter, offering guides for teachers and students to explore these subjects more. Are there plans to bring this book around to schools?
That’s certainly the hope and plan. I’ve already heard of people buying several and donating them to schools.
Fighting to Belong, Volume 1 is in stores everywhere from The Asian American Foundation and Third State Books. Volume 2 is expected to be released in September 2024, and Volume 3 is expected to be released in January 2025.
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