By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
As a young girl in the 1980s, Korey Watari could not find books with characters who looked like her.
Once she became a mother, she thought the literary landscape would have improved. And it has—just not by much. It’s still difficult for Watari to find children’s books highlighting the Asian American experience.
To fill this void, she decided to write her own children’s book with a main character her two daughters—now 4 and 9—could relate to. The idea for the story came to her a few years ago, but it wasn’t until the pandemic hit, and the rise in anti-AAPI racism that came with it, that Watari really sat down to write the story.
“It was a sign to me that this book had to be written,” Watari said.
The book in question is “I Am Able to Shine” (Two Lions, 2022), which she partnered with her husband Mike Wu to write. Written by Watari and illustrated by Wu, the story is set to be released May 1 and follows a young Japanese American girl named Keiko going through life—from childhood to adulthood.
Keiko is kind and has big dreams to change the world. But sometimes she feels invisible and people misjudge her. As the story progresses, Keiko realizes she’s also loved. So she perseveres and stands strong, her confidence growing as she shares more of herself and helps lift up others.
A story for all kids
“Shine” is a story about finding where you belong—something Watari feels young Asian American kids need to hear.
“We have a place (in this country),” she said, adding that Keiko’s story is so personal to her because it highlights feelings she’s had throughout her life as a kid—such as feeling invisible as a result of growing up in the suburbs with a small Asian American population—and even now as an adult.
The Bay Area couple wants a better world—not just for their kids, but for all kids—and with so much negativity associated with the pandemic, Wu said the timing felt right for a book like “Shine.” He added that in addition to kids finally seeing themselves represented on the page, books like theirs highlight new voices and expose kids of all backgrounds to different faces and ways of life, which helps build empathy for others.
“It’s for all kids,” he said.
A family affair
While this was not the first time Watari and Wu have worked together (they’ve partnered on a clothing line in the past), this was the first time they’ve worked on a book.
“Shine” is Watari’s first picture book, while Wu is the author and illustrator behind the “Ellie the Elephant” book series.
“I’m lucky because I have an in-house teacher,” said Watari, whose background is in animation and fashion and has worked for companies such as Disney and the Gap.
In response, Wu, who is also a Pixar artist and has worked on a number of the studio’s films including its latest, “Turning Red,” laughed and said, “I don’t know about a teacher.”
He added that it was fun working with his wife as they talked about the book all the time—even during everyday tasks around the house such as making dinner—and described it as a nice back-and-forth process. Because the pandemic had them homebound, it was difficult to keep their work and personal lives separate.
But one of the benefits of working with your spouse, Wu said, is being able to discuss your work without being judged.
“We would inspire each other,” he said.
The book’s original inspirations, Watari and Wu’s daughters, also enjoyed the book and the two girls see themselves as Keiko. In addition, for a scene in which Keiko is protesting with her loved ones, Watari and Wu’s eldest created the posters the fictional family is holding up—a contribution she describes as “embarrassing,” according to Wu.
But for Watari, having “Shine” be a family affair—from getting Wu involved, to their daughters’ input—was her favorite part of writing the book.
“That was really special,” she said.
Samantha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.