Jerry Zhang’s 4-year-old daughter, Madison, loves to read. But she couldn’t help noticing something strange about all of her favorite books.
Madison, who is Chinese, wondered why all of her page-bound heroes, like Madeline and Eloise, were white, usually with red or blonde hair.
Zhang and his daughter, Madison, read "Where the Wild Things Are." All photos via Jerry Zhang, used with permission.
Zhang didn’t have a great answer for her, so he set out to look for some kids’ books Madison could relate to a little better. It was harder than he thought. Every book he brought home with a female Asian protagonist was all about being Asian, with stories about Chinese food, tradition, and holidays.
Where were characters leading fascinating lives, going on wild excursions, and learning life lessons? Characters who just happened to be Asian?
Madison was so discouraged that one day she told her dad she didn’t want to be Chinese anymore. And it broke his heart.
Zhang, a lawyer by trade and an unpublished fiction writer by hobby, decided to come up with a hero Madison could look up to.
Her name is Pepper Zhang, and she’s a Chinese girl who travels the world in search of great adventures.
When Zhang launched a Kickstarter to fund the project, he thought he’d probably scrape together just enough money to produce a few of the books for Madison and her younger sister, who’ll start reading any day now. He hoped the stories might be enough to cheer up Madison.
"While it’s important for children to learn about their cultures through books," he writes on the project’s Kickstarter page, "it’s equally important for Asian children to see themselves represented in books as interesting and smart individuals rather than just products of their cultures."
Once the Kickstarter was live, however, Zhang was completely blown away by the response.
"I’ve gotten so many emails and messages from people of all backgrounds voicing their support for what I’m doing and asking that I continue writing these books and expand into other demographics as well," he writes in an email.
With a few days left before the fundraising deadline, "Pepper Zhang: Artist Extraordinaire!" has brought in nearly $15,000, at the time of this writing.
That’s almost three times Zhang’s original goal.
And as for Madison, Zhang says she can’t wait to dive into the books when they’re finished.
"Madison recently started express[ing] an interest in learning Chinese, so I’m very excited about that," Zhang says. "I definitely think the whole project has made a big impact on her — after all, Pepper Zhang is inspired by her!"
If Zhang’s story proves anything (besides him being the ultimate #dadgoals), it’s that representation isn’t just a talking point — it really, truly matters to young kids like Madison. They need to see other people like themselves portrayed as valuable individuals and not just vehicles for their culture.
Hopefully, when the books come out, Pepper Zhang can help plenty of other kids out there feel proud about who they are.
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