Karen Chan with son Jaxon Lee reading "What's That."

Keep Your Bans Off These Books

Writer JiaYing Grygiel talks to Gloo Books' Karen Chan on the importance of representation in kid lit—for kids, obviously, but for adults, too

Karen Chan with son Jaxon Lee reading "What's That."

Courtesy of Gloo Books

The impetus for Karen Chan’s first children’s book was her memory of a familiar experience for many Asian American kids: the snide comments about her family’s food. Like when kids would come over for a playdate and ask, “What is your mom making? What is that smell?” Or the kind of ignorance that resulted in her peeled pi dan (preserved egg) once getting tossed by a friend, who mistook it for a fully rotten avocado.

Chan wrote What’s That? in 2021 to fight for the lunch-shamed kids who don’t come to school with a PB&J. But one book wasn’t enough, so she founded a children’s book publishing company focused on inclusive stories.

“There’s an issue of diversity in kids literature,” says Chan, who launched Gloo Books in 2020. “We’re trying to highlight stories that aren’t commonly out there.”

The name Gloo is a play on the word “glue,” the sticky adhesive that binds booksand community. Gloo’s sixth title, Mostly Me, is set to release Sept. 18. It’s a picture book about biracial identity, written by a biracial author and illustrated by a biracial artist.

The cover of "Mostly Me."

Courtesy of Gloo Books

Diversity in children’s literature is a growing trend, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin. The center has compiled statistics about books by and about BIPOC creators since 1994. The number of children’s books by or about a person of color began increasing around 2015, and five years later, that number had tripled. The latest count shows that 40 percent of the children’s books in 2022 were by a person of color.

What’s one thing that makes Gloo different? Children’s books typically take years to complete. The timeline for Mostly Me? “The whole book, start to finish, three months,” illustrator Crystal Dawn Chaffee answers without missing a beat.

"Mostly Me" illustrator Crystal Dawn Chaffee.

Courtesy of Crystal Dawn Chaffee

Most books go through a distributor to reach the market, but Gloo is a small press, and a direct-to-consumer business. Books are sold primarily through the Gloo website, intentionally skipping the distributor bottleneck.

“The whole publishing company is so gate-keptand frankly, white,” Chan says. 

Case in point: at an independent book conference with more than 100 attendees, Chan noticed she was one of three Asian people.

“You have to convince people why your story is going to sell millions,” she adds. “Unfortunately, if your story is about being a person of color or if you’re from an underrepresented community, the general viewpoint is, those books are ‘niche.’ They don’t have mass appeal. They’re never going to be a huge bestseller. That’s problematic.”

“Unfortunately, if your story is about being a person of color or if you’re from an underrepresented community, the general viewpoint is, those books are ‘niche.’ They don’t have mass appeal. They’re never going to be a huge bestseller. That’s problematic.”

Gloo is run by a small team of independent contractors. Chan doesn’t pay herself, and freelances part-time as an attorney to bootstrap the business.

When she was a new mom, Chan noticed that none of the characters in the books she read with her son Jaxon looked like them. She and her husband are both of Taiwanese descent.

“We’ve already read a ton of books to him since the time he was tiny-tiny,” Chan says. “It’s hard to find charactersmain characters—who are Asian American boys.”

Chan sent a copy of What’s That? to Michelle Li, a TV anchor in St. Louis who went viral after a viewer complained she was “very Asian.” (Li had mentioned on air that she eats dumplings for New Year’s because she’s Korean. “She literally had a stinky lunch box moment as an adult, in a public forum,” Chan says.)

Li’s preschooler son pointed at the main character in the book and said, “Mommy, that’s me.”

“That was a lightbulb moment,” Chan says. “Representation is so important.”

Chan taps authors who are not necessarily children’s book authors. Li went on to write Gloo’s second title, A Very Asian Guide to Korean Food. Collin Hall, author of Mostly Me is a brand designer in Austin, Texas.

Hall first learned about Gloo Books when it popped up on his Instagram feed. Same with Chaffee, the illustrator for Mostly Me. That algorithm is powerful. 

On a whim, Hall cold-pitched Gloo a poem about being biracial. He’d tapped it out on the notes app on his phone, just something silly for his baby daughter. With editing and polishing, that poem became the text for Mostly Me.

The birth of his daughter Amelia in 2020 got Hall thinking about his personal identity and his own childhood. Hall is Korean American; his mom moved to the United States from Korea when she was 9, and his dad, he says, “is just a Texas dude.”

“I think becoming a dad forces you to analyze yourself a lot,” Hall says, “because you’re raising a little person. You’re passing on the best things you can. You’re waking up a million times nightly. You’re cutting grapes into quarters.

“It’s also internal, personal work, making sure you’re being the best you can for your child. Having a kid made me think about my identity, who I was, how I wanted to share my culture with her. What was good. What was hard. What did I struggle with. What I did not want her to struggle with.”

"Mostly Me" author Collin Hall with daughters Amelia and Eleanor.

Courtesy of Collin Hall

Chaffee, an artist based in Portland, Oregon, immediately connected with the message in Mostly Me about growing up feeling stuck between two worlds.

“The message is really powerful and it resonates with me. Because that accurately describes what I experiencedand still go throughas a biracial person,” Chaffee says.

Chaffee’s mom is Filipina, and her dad is white. The struggle, she says, is being half of this, half of that, and not feeling enough of one or another. The book’s message is that you can own both spaces completely, and be 100 percent yourself.

“I wish I was able to tell my younger self that you’re going to feel lost growing up,” Chaffee says. “But know that you are enough of both.”

The thing about children’s books, Chan says, is there are two audiences: the kid, and the caregiver reading the book to the kid. Her goal for Gloo Books is to open minds and change perspectives of both kids and adults.

“Kids books are honestly for adults, too,” Chan says. “We could learn a lot from children’s books.”

Published on September 18, 2023

Words by JiaYing Grygiel

JiaYing Grygiel is a photographer and writer who covers food, travel and parenting. She earned degrees in magazine journalism and photography from Syracuse University, then promptly moved to Seattle because you don't have to shovel the rain.