It’s a question I’ve been asked my whole life. And now, it’s a book that I illustrated. Written by Christian Trimmer, What Are You? is an introduction to talking about being mixed-race. Though it is imperative that we talk about race with kids, the topic can often feel too heavy to find an entry point. However, I think our book offers a light opportunity to begin a conversation.
Here’s a little synopsis from Macmillan: From Christian Trimmer and award-winning illustrator Mike Curato comes What Are You?, a brilliant, new early-reader picture book brimming with warmth and playfulness that explores questions of race and identity.
When a puggle meets two new poodle friends, there is a question the poodles feel they must ask.
What are you?
What am I?
Yes, what are you?
I am a dog.
No, what are you?
So begins a conversation about family and identity, and about the things we’re good at… and why we’re good at them. Brimming with warmth and playfulness, What Are You? is an exemplary picture book for early readers. Equally funny and thoughtful, the book includes prompts to facilitate important first conversations about stereotypes and bias between child and adult.
I myself am mixed-race, and I think what I find most troubling about the question, “What are you?”, is that it’s one of the first things someone feels compelled to ask me, as opposed to “WHO are you?” Surely that would prompt a much more interesting, multifaceted answer, because I am many things. “I contain multitudes.” When asked the question, sometimes I’ll push back and inquire, “why do you ask?” That’s usually followed by “just curious!” But what exactly is driving that specific curiosity? Why not ask someone what their interests are? Or if they’re hungry? Or if they’ve read any good books lately? (I’ve got a recommendation!)
I hope that everyone sees themselves in these pages: the asked and askers. I like to create books that I wish I had when I was a kid, and I hope that mixed folks who read this feel validated and seen. But it would have been even better if kids in my class who weren’t mixed had this book, because it would have helped them understand how to talk to me, how to ask me to be friends, how to see me as a person not so different from themselves. As a creative, I fully support curiosity, and I also believe that there are some things that we must wait for someone to reveal to us in their own time and on their terms.
I’m so grateful that I was asked to illustrate this story, one that I felt compelled to tell for many years, but couldn’t find the right words. My thanks to Christian for finding the those words and putting them together so beautifully! Many thanks to the good people at Roaring Brook who helped make this happen: Jennifer Besser, Lisa Vega, Allene Casagnol, and the rest of the team at Macmillan Children’s. And a big thank you to my dear agent, Brenda Bowen.
I dedicated this book to my brother and sister, who are two people whom I rely on to know exactly how I feel about a shortlist of things, including “the question” in question. I’m sure if the three of us were asked “What are you?” at the same time, we would in unison reply, “WEIRD.”
And for anyone asking, I am the following mix:
And to you, dear reader, I am your devoted storyteller. xo Mike