In Mia Wenjen's Shoes: My Journey Discovering Diverse Books for Kids



Name: Mia Wenjen


Where do you live now? I live in a suburb now, about 7 miles west of Boston. We moved there for the excellent public schools and it certainly has that in spades.


Industry: Writer


What does it mean to you to have a voice?

Having a voice means following your own path and not be scared to speak out.




How did you find your voice?

I grew up in Seal Beach in Southern California.


It's a small beach town nestled under Long Beach and above Huntington Beach, two beaches more well-known than my town. The population is 60,000 people, evenly split among retirees (we have the first retirement community in the country) and everyone else.

Like most cities in Southern California, there was diversity in terms of Asian Pacific Americans, Blacks, and Latinos. When I was in 4th grade, I read every single book in my elementary school's well-stocked library. It took me more than two years. I read every single middle-grade fiction and biography book but I never, ever read about a character that looked like me.


I remember up until 4th grade, I was a pretty quiet child. I thought a lot of sarcastic or jaded thoughts, but I kept them to myself. I finally decided, on a whim, just to say out loud what I was thinking. I think that's when I started expressing my voice. It wasn't any kind of revelation, but I do remember thinking that my friends thought I was funny at times. My inner voice had a sense of humor!


What event or series of events helped you find your voice?

When I was in business school, I was in a program called TEC on Campus. We visited entrepreneurs at their companies and learned about how they got to where they are now and what sacrifices they made to get there. The person who ran the program, Larry King (not the famous one), was an industrial psychologist. He mentored all of us on our entrepreneurial ambitions. He was just a really good listener who made straightforward challenges to help us all move forward.


Later on, in response to being kicked out of a women's clothing company that I founded, I decided to take an art class as a form of therapy. As a result, I ended up doing business consulting for a family-run art school, Brentwood Art School, and also took many, many art classes. It was the beginning of unleashing a creative streak in me.



Whose voice are you influenced by?

I think that I've learned to be proud of my mixed-Asian culture. I'm half Japanese and half Chinese American and my husband is Korean American. We are really food-obsessed and enjoy cuisine from all over the world. In Asian culture, the act of preparing food and eating together is a way to convey love. It's also a time to be together.


Culturally, I've heard that the nail that sticks up gets pounded down, but I embraced following my own path which usually means a willingness to stick out. My parents always supported me and I think that's why I was willing to stick out and speak out.


I think my husband’s voice influenced me the most because he is someone who is not afraid of confrontation or speaking out. And he has the kind of leadership style that is 110% confident so people around him naturally turn to him.



How has your voice influenced others, particularly those in your community?

My blog, PragmaticMom.com, focused on diverse children's books pretty early on. I've been blogging for 11 years and I think I formally drew a line in the sand to focus primarily on diverse children’s literature about 9 years ago. Reading stories from minority points of view is a wonderful way to "walk in other's people shoes." I think children are much more receptive to accepting differences than adults.

With a fellow children’s book blogger, I ended up starting a nonprofit, Multicultural Children's Book Day, to celebrate and get diverse books into the hands of children, teachers, librarians, parents, and guardians. I also mentor, both in formal programs and informally.



How did 2020 help you refine/redefine your voice?

I would say that 2017 was a tough year for me. I remember that the Trump administration had declared a "Muslim Ban" very soon after he took office. It, in fact, landed on the day we were celebrating Multicultural Children's Book Day through an hour-long Twitter party talking about the state of diversity in children's book publishing. We ended up trending that day on Twitter at #4 with hashtag #ReadYourWorld, one slot above #MuslimBan. It seems that everyone was taking comfort in embracing immigrants that day through our event. In comparison, 2020 was a year that ended in feeling like diversity is being embraced and the tide that felt like a tsunami of hate towards Asian Pacific Americans was finally going to turn around. I think that I have learned that one voice, no matter how small, can honestly and truly make a difference. I think that 1 on 1 engagement is powerful. Also, just showing up is really a powerful way to express support. You don't even need to say anything when you show up, just being there is enough whether it's an activist march, an author event, or on social media.



Where will your voice lead next?

I find that I am interested in the spaces in which there are not a lot of voices. In terms of children’s books, Asian American representation still has a long way to go. I found that there were virtually no books on Asian American female athletes, so I did a Kickstarter campaign to fund my own book. I am toying with a memoir on the origin story of Aquent, the dorm room startup that I did with two friends that is now a multinational business. Finally, I am very interested in furthering #OwnVoices in KidLit, authors and illustrators who are of the minority segment in which they write/illustrate about.






Bio

Mia blogs on parenting, children's books, and education at PragmaticMom.com and is the co-creator of Multicultural Children's Book Day, a non-profit celebrating diversity in children's books. She is the co-author of two books with Alison Foley, HOW TO COACH GIRLS (a primer on how to keep girls in sports for coaches), and THE ELUSIVE FULL RIDE SCHOLARSHIP: AN INSIDER'S GUIDE. To find the best diverse books, she wrote BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN'S BOOKS: MY FAVORITE DIVERSITY BOOKS FOR KIDS AGES 1-12 published by Audrey Press.



She is also the co-founder of Aquent, the world’s largest company staffing creative, digital, and marketing talent with 37 offices around the world.



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