Everyone is Welcome
Everyone is Welcome
We head into the big field in our schoolyard to play tag, like we do most days. But today, one of my friends tells me he can’t play with me anymore.
His dad told him that everything bad that’s happened in the world is my fault. Mine and everyone who looks like me. He seems sad but he walks away, and I don’t have the words to stop him.
In the past few years, the pandemic has impacted everyone worldwide due to the intense disruption that it has wrought upon all aspects of people’s daily lives, affecting how they work, live, and interact with others in their community. In Canada and the United States, the pandemic has had a particularly adverse social and psychological impact on people from their respective Asian communities due to the sharp rise in anti-Asian sentiment that has accompanied the pandemic’s emergence. Subject to increased harassment, discrimination, and even violence as a result of their cultural and geographical origins, these communities have been made to feel like outsiders who do not belong. Numerous news stories have revealed how people from these communities feel marginalized, stressed, and unsafe.
Against this debilitating climate that Asian communities face, Everyone is Welcome provides a timely response and offers young children a way to understand and engage with these issues in a relatable manner. Written by Phuong Truong and illustrated by Christine Wei, the book advocates a positive vision of community life, one that is accepting of everyone, regardless of their background. Echoes of Flo Leung’s The Tray of Togetherness (www.cmreviews.ca/node/3409) can be seen in this book as it advocates for a positive communal space in which everyone belongs. However, a crucial difference is that Everyone is Welcome draws upon real-life incidents that affect Asian communities in Canada today.
Told from an eight-year-old Asian girl’s perspective, the book’s narrative trajectory revolves around her growing awareness about various incidents that have impacted Asian people in her community, an awareness which ultimately prompt her to take action. Reflecting on the fact that she is not permitted to go to the store by herself, the girl hears about her mother’s previous experiences with racism, but her reactions to it also reveal her lack of understanding about why people act in that manner. She then hears about her grandmother’s friend, Mrs. Lee, who has been pushed down and is now in hospital, as well as about Asian students at her brother’s school who are afraid to walk to class. After she experiences the effects of racism personally and speaks with her mother about it, she decides to do something and make a difference.
Christine Wei’s illustrations complement Truong’s text effectively by conveying the ambience and sights of the Asian community within which the young girl lives. When she goes with her family to the Asian market, the accompanying illustration depicts a variety of Chinese foods and cultural items, such as lychee jellies, sweet buns, and Chinese New Year decorations. In addition, her illustrations highlight the story’s main themes and dramatize important moments. When Mrs. Lee is pushed into the street and concerned bystanders surround her, the two-page illustration includes a close-up image of the girl’s grandmother as she looks on with shock and consternation while some bystanders attend to Mrs. Lee. Spatially, Wei’s representation of the girl’s grandmother on the page contrasts dramatically with Mrs. Lee and the bystanders. The grandmother is situated in the foreground and appears disproportionately large, such that Mrs. Lee and the bystanders are very small by comparison. By Wei’s doing so, attention is focused on the grandmother’s reaction which heightens this scene’s emotional impact and also provides a visual cue that directs readers towards the incident, itself. Similarly, when the girl’s brother mentions that he wants to support Asian students who do not feel safe walking home by themselves, the accompanying illustration shows the poster that he has made.
One particularly poignant moment that readers can readily identify with is when one of the girl’s friends mentions that he cannot play with her anymore because his father feels that Asians are to blame for what is happening. Children will sympathize with the girl, even though they may not understand why that situation has occurred. It may prompt them to ask why his father’s views should affect who she is friends with, which can provide the opportunity for parents or teachers to have a conversation about it.
Due to this occurrence, the girl’s mother consoles her about her friend and mentions that it can be difficult to change people’s attitudes, but that she can continue to be a good person and friend to others. Accentuating Canada’s multicultural demographics, the accompanying two-page illustration complements this scene effectively through its positive and normalized representations of intercultural interaction and friendship. After speaking with her mother, the girl feels motivated to do something for Mrs. Lee.
However, one minor shortcoming is how the narrative leads up to the book’s ending. Although the story ends on a hopeful note, it seems to conclude a bit abruptly and leaves readers hanging. In the final couple of scenes, the young girl creates a “Get Well Soon” card for Mrs. Lee and asks her fellow classmates to contribute their well-wishes. However, the story then finishes after she mentions that she will deliver the card to Mrs. Lee that evening. The narrative could benefit from a bit more development—perhaps another couple of pages—that would solidify the ending’s impact and make it more satisfying for readers if they could see the positive effects of the girl’s actions.
One of the book’s key strengths is how its narrative arc provides a composite snapshot of an Asian community’s daily struggles and lives through its representation of various debilitating incidents that the young girl, her family, and others in her community experience. Representing these individual incidents and the girl’s reactions to them effectively through succinct language and complementary illustrations, Everyone is Welcome evokes the pandemic implicitly as a backdrop since it echoes incidents that Asian communities have experienced and that have been covered in the news. In doing so, it provides an important contribution to Canadian children’s literature as it has not widely addressed the pandemic as a topic, particularly in relation to culturally diverse and marginalized communities.
Due to the wide range of subjects that it deals with, Everyone is Welcome would work effectively as a pedagogical tool for teachers to stimulate discussion among students, particularly as it promotes a positive message of safety, inclusion, and acceptance. The book addresses the different ways in which anti-Asian racism can manifest through prejudicial and discriminatory attitudes and actions which target, exclude, and harm people from those communities. These are difficult topics to address as they reflect the reality of what many people from those communities face while struggling with their health and well-being. Longer-form works, such as chapter books or novels, would provide the latitude for authors to explore these topics in more detail since they could explore the complexities and nuances of these debilitating issues as well as dramatize their impact through developed narrative arcs. However, within the spatial constraints of a picture book, these topics can only be addressed in a limited manner. In this respect, this picture book succeeds in raising these issues without simplifying them or trivializing their severity. However, it would be crucial for adults to provide young readers with sufficient context so that they can better comprehend the events’ impact upon Asian communities.
Everyone is Welcome is a valuable addition to any school library that would like to build its collection of books about diverse communities. In the classroom, the book would work effectively as a conversation starter to get students thinking about their impressions of the characters’ experiences, what it means to them, and how it matters in their own lives. Making connections between the story and their own lives will also encourage students to connect with the characters which could then form the basis for a discussion about what it means to have a welcoming community or environment in which everyone feels like that they belong. For slightly older children who feel comfortable with discussing these topics, teachers could use the book to interrogate how Asian people’s treatment by others in the contemporary context compares to the book’s representation of this experience, consider the pandemic’s lingering impact on Asian communities and discuss the various ways in which Asian communities are discriminated against.
Having grown up in Ottawa, author Phuong Truong works in book publishing and currently lives in Toronto. Vancouver-based illustrator Christine Wei, a Taiwanese artist with a degree from Emily Carr University of Art and Design, enjoys creating art that conveys relatable narratives in dynamic perspectives.
Second Story Press has an important history of publishing timely books on relevant subjects, particularly feminist-inspired books for adults and young readers that feature strong female characters as well as themes pertaining to social justice, human rights, and ability issues. Everyone is Welcome book contributes to its growing collection of works with its message of youth empowerment and how everyone can make a positive impact in their own way, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant, within one’s community through grassroot actions.
Huai-Yang Lim, who has a degree in Library and Information Studies, enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.