It was year one in primary school and I was sitting in class on the floor, cross-legged and wide-eyed as the teacher read us a story. Enid Blyton was the name of the author (you may have heard of her?) and there came a point in the story where all the children in the class began to laugh. I couldn’t figure out what all the snickering was about and I looked around, wishing to be let in on the joke.
Dick and Fanny were the names of the two main characters back then. It was the first time I’d ever heard those words and I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It was just their names. What’s wrong with that? I thought.
I’d only just moved to Australia from Thailand a couple of months before. I couldn’t speak any English, not even to my father who was Dutch and grew up in Australia. We spoke only Thai when we set foot on this land girt by sea, and it would only be a matter of time before I would urge my mum to ‘Stop speaking to me in Thai, it’s embarrassing!’ and I would soon forget my own language. But back in the classroom, I was still trying to wrap my head around English. I asked what was going on and the girl sitting next to me scoffed. ‘Don’t you get it? Dick and Fanny,’ she laughed. And this wouldn’t be the last time I felt on the outer reading a children’s book in this country.
When I recall the books I read as a child, I only remember padded books of fairy tales with blonde princesses in towers. I would see these pretty princesses and fairies and heroes and knights and find them so beautiful and brave, mostly because everyone else did. The beauty and heroism was bestowed by virtue of these qualities being the standard. I was growing up in a Western society that valued pretty blonde faces and fair skin, and when I realised that the way that I looked didn’t match up with the stars of these stories, I was not prepared.
As an Asian child, constantly seeing a white hero in the literature you are consuming may not have obvious repercussions from the outside, but the more you are exposed to it – the more that idea is drilled into you – the more it will become your own view of what a hero is.
When writing my first book, When You’re Going to the Moon, I was finally in the privileged position of being able to decide what I wanted my character to look like. I could write the Asian girl, whose parents are divorced, who is the hero of her own story. I could do anything I wanted. And we are at a time now where people are hungry for this kind of change; they want different voices to be heard.
No one can say that representation doesn’t matter when I, as an adult, teared up when I first flipped through the final pages of my book and saw Vivienne To’s artwork of the mother cooking dinner. There was a rice cooker in the background. Yes, everyone eats rice, and a rice cooker is a standard appliance that most families probably have sitting on their kitchen counter too. But just how normal it felt to see it on the page was amazing. I get so emotional thinking about it even now. Can you imagine? Over a rice cooker?
This is why diverse representation is sorely needed. There needs to be different reference points for what a family is, what a child looks like. There needs to be as many different characters in the literature we are reading to our children as there are in their lives.
When you’re reading a story about the moon, who is always the main character? Maybe a cow who jumps over it, or a little Caucasian boy goes up in a little spaceship to reach it. The world is not going to change with another story like that. But someone’s world might change when they see a little girl who looks like them climbing that ladder to the moon, because they’ll see that everything is within their reach.
When You’re Going to the Moon is an aspirational story – as aspirational as you can get. I want my book to reach the little girls out there who, like me, never before saw themselves as the hero. Who tried to forget what their own face looked like every time they saw another blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned princess on the page of their favourite bedtime story. This book is my love letter to all the little girls like me who need to see that they too can make it to the moon.
When You’re Going to the Moon by Sasha Beekman ($24.99, Affirm Press) is available now.