Growing up Japanese American—and Asian American in general—we often take to mean accepting invisibility. The young character, Keiko, in I Am Able to Shine, goes through ballet lessons and basketball practices wondering why “others don’t see [her] the way [she] does.” Author Korey Watari and illustrator (and Watari’s husband) Mike Wu gave their insight to their process with this book.
“Keiko’s story started as a spin on my own experience but the more revisions we did, you write what you know so the final version had much more of my personal feelings,” Watari said.
Despite the bullying and microaggressions she faces throughout her years, Keiko learns not only to persevere, but to embrace her identity as a Japanese American woman and to be proud of her culture. Her heritage doesn’t makes her feel invisible, but her lack of representation does. The reason people judge the food in her lunchbox and the reason she feels like an outcast are because her white peers don’t see people like her on their screens and in their books.
As Watari and Wu said, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” They created that representation for future generations; noy only will young kids benefit from seeing themselves represented, but teenage, adult, and older generations can relate to the journey towards self-acceptance and empowerment. Watari and Wu mentioned how they want their two daughters to have the representation they never had growing up in the 1980s.
“There were always seeds of the idea for this book but becoming a mom was the biggest push because we wanted our kids to have Asian American books to read growing up,” Watari said.
They even mentioned how their nine-year-old contributed by drawing the signs in the image of Keiko protesting and standing up for what she believes in.
On this journey we take with Keiko, we see her grow from elementary school to adulthood as well as from a girl who fights her invisibility to a woman who knows her worth and uses that to enact change.
“Being Asian meant I was inherently insecure, and I wanted to please people, but the lesson here is to embrace who you are—your culture is your superpower,” Watari said.
As someone who teared up watching our first-ever woman and POC Vice President of the United States get inaugurated, turning the page and seeing the image of adult Keiko as an inspiration for our country gave me goosebumps. She has her back turned, looking out the window at the world she has helped and is helping to progress.
After witnessing her life story, we get to experience her raising a daughter of her own who she names Teruko. As Keiko accepted and celebrated who she was since the beginning of the book, she then gets to pass that on to Teruko.
“It’s about hope for a brighter future and about using your voice to do something that will make a difference,” Watari said.
This sentiment is one that all young children should get to hear, but to see it in her book and with Mike Wu’s creativity, the sentiment truly hits home. Growing up only seeing white people succeeding on the silver screen, only seeing blonde princesses, and only seeing white men superheroes, it is encouraging to not only see this representation for myself but allows me to picture a future that will have books such as this one for parents to read to their children.