ABOVE PHOTO: Mia and her daughters, Ali and Zoe vacationing in Italy.
Interview with Kam Williams
Mia Wenjen blogs at PragmaticMom.com on parenting, education and children’s books. A dorm room entrepreneur with her creative staffing company, Aquent, ranking #12 on the Inc. 500 list when she was 26-years-old, Wenjen has always championed social justice. Her staffing company was the first to offer medical benefits to temporary workers.
These days, the mother of three is focused on getting diverse, multicultural and inclusive books into the hands of the kids who need them most. She co-founded Multicultural Children’s Book Day [http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/] to shine the spotlight on authors, illustrators and diversity characters so kids of color could find themselves in books.
Because her children are 1/4 Japanese-American, 1/4 Chinese-American and 1/2 Korean American, she personally sought out books where they could see themselves; something that she didn’t have growing up, despite being a bookworm who read every single biography and fiction chapter book in her Southern California elementary school’s library.
Blogging on KidLit for five years helped her realize that there simply isn’t enough representation of kids of color in children’s literature. Furthermore, the books that do exist don’t get the exposure they need and deserve. So, she’ made it her mission to dedicate her blogging efforts to promoting children’s authors of color.
That’s how she found Valarie Budayr from Jump Into a Book who proposed creating a day to celebrate multicultural books for kids, and thus Multicultural Children’s Book Day was born. And they hope you will join them on January 27th!
Kam Williams: Hi Mia, thanks for the interview.
Mia Wenjen: Thanks so much for having me, Kam.
KW: What inspired you to found the Multicultural Children’s Book Day?
MW: Lee and Low Publishing had a blog post on how the number of diversity books for kids has not changed in 14 years! I was shocked and dismayed. I put it out on my Facebook that, from now on, I would focus on diversity authors, illustrators and characters on my blog. Valarie Budayr of Jump Into a Book blog saw my post and contacted me about creating a day to celebrate multicultural books for kids. I said, “You can do that?” And she said, “Yes, you just do it.” So we did.
KW: What effect does access to literature celebrating diversity have on children during their formative years?
MW: It’s about validating your right to be part of the mainstream as a child of color. Do you see yourself in the media and in books and how are these role models being portrayed? I also think when kids see a reflection of themselves in books, they are more prone to relate to the character and book, and this might spark an interest in reading.
KW: Do multicultural books benefit white kids, too? Or is primarily for minorities?
MW: The world around us is changing. In the year 2042 which is just 26 years from now, Caucasians will not longer be the majority in the United States. That’s not so far away. But in other respects, like special needs, kids of this generation have more special needs classmates than ever before, and learning how to get along with everyone is going to be a valuable life skill when they enter the workforce. Whether it’s race, special needs, religions — just learning about our differences and how to find commonalities is our best case scenario for how we will learn to get along on this planet. And the nice thing is that young kids are the most open to something different. They have no innate preconceived ideas.
KW: You have an MBA from UCLA, and started out as a designer/manufacturer in the fashion industry. What made you decide to become a stay-at-home mom?
MW: I actually started a company out of college with two classmates that has grown into an international creative staffing company called Aquent. When my oldest was born, I was working full time for Aquent and my husband and I panicked about daycare for her. He decided to stay home to take care of her, having spent a year trying his luck as a professional golfer on the mini tours. When our second was born, he said that if he had to stay home with two kids, he would be forced to leave us, so we decided to switch places. He went back to work full-time in finance, and I stayed home with two kids. And then we had a third!
KW: And then, with three kids, how did you make the transition to a work-at-home-mom?
MW: I had to wait until my youngest was in preschool for half-a-day, five days a week, but I was itching to start some kind of small business. I had thought of doing a birthday gift registry, so family members and relatives could buy a part of an expensive gift for someone. but I didn’t have the programming skills. I had been recruiting an Adobe Flash Evangelist for a start-up that my company owned, and I noticed that every candidate I went after had a blog in WordPress. I had heard of blogs, but I didn’t really understand how they worked or which blogging platform to use. I figured, if the most technically savvy people in Silicon Valley were using WordPress, then that was the way to go. I started blogging seven years ago and I got hooked. It took me five years of basically working for free to finally earn income from blogging and, while it’s not much money, it’s satisfying in the same way as getting blood from a stone.
KW: Tell me a little about your plans for this year’s Multicultural Children’s Book Day?
MW: We are so excited to be in the position to give away a ton of diversity books this year! We are giving away more than 600 books! Teachers can sign up for our Classroom Reading Challenge and we will send them a free hardcover book through our sponsor, Junior Library Guild. We hope to get 400 teachers signed up and we’ve extended the deadline to the end of their school year. Bloggers of any stripe, lifestyle, parenting, education, etcetera, get a free diversity book from us and they post their review on January 27th which is included in a linky.
KW: How would you describe your mission?
MW: We are trying to get diversity, multicultural and inclusive books into the hands of kids who need them. We do this by raising awareness of the great books out there that perhaps are under the radar. We create content to help teachers and parents find the books they need, as well as activities to go along with them. We are also giving books away.
KW: How would you define success?
MW: Success is when the books published reflect the ethnic demographics of the United States.
KW: AALBC.com founder Troy Johnson asks: What was the last book you read?
MW: I just finished Rebecca Stead’s book “Goodbye Stranger.”
I can’t stop thinking about it; it’s that good. But what is really cool is that the newest book by Chris Grabenstein, Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, uses the same riddle about two people pointing to two doors. One goes to heaven, one to hell. One lies, one doesn’t. Which door do you pick? How cool is that?
KW: Ling-Ju Yen asks: What is your earliest childhood memory?
MW: I was the kid who was squirreled away with a book and an apple. I remember deciding to read every chapter book in my elementary school library because I couldn’t find any “good” books.
KW: Who loved you unconditionally during your formative years?
MW: My mom and the family cats!
KW: Was there a meaningful spiritual component to your childhood?
MW: My parents let me try out different religions. I went to Mormon church school in 2nd grade because my best friend was Mormon. I went to Christian sleepaway camp. I went to Presbyterian Sunday school every week because they gave out these Bible comic books, and each one ended on a cliffhanger. I loved the New Testament, and I had to find out what happened next!
KW: Would you describe yourself as a “Tiger Mom” as described by Amy Chua in her best seller, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Did you read her book. Does it unfairly stereotype Chinese parents?
MW: I did read her book and while there are components that all Asian-American kids can relate to, she’s on the extreme side. My kids tell me that I am so not a Tiger Mom mostly because I don’t make them practice their instrument daily. I think what’s true about Tiger parenting is that if Asian parents think that racism is prevalent, as they personally experience it or glean from media, then they will be very rigid about what professions their kids can go into: doctor, engineer, lawyer, accountant, pharmacist, and so forth. Professions that are based on a degree. But if you believe that anyone can succeed in America based on hard work, then you let your kids experience the world, allow them to make mistakes, and optimistically feel like it will all come out right in the end. This is a big leap of faith, if you were subject to racism yourself. Personally, I’m shocked that my mother, who was forced to relocate from her home in San Francisco’s Japantown to an internment camp during World War II, would let me, as a college student, put her house on the line for a business loan that I was taking out for my start-up. But then, she’s an optimist!
KW: What was your very first job?
MW: It’s so funny. I was hired to sew names on hats at Knott’s Berry Farm. I worked at the Hat Hangar the summer before college. Then my brother told me that the Knott family was instrumental in getting Anti-Asian legislation passed in California — he had taken an immigration class in college — I became the employee with a very bad attitude!
KW: Sherry Gillam would like to know what is the most important life lesson you’ve learned so far?
MW: To take risks and embrace failure. Failure is a great teacher and no one can label you as a loser for failure, if you refuse to accept their view of it.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
MW: I wish that I had a decent singing voice. I’m not asking for Adelle’s voice. Just so that I wouldn’t suck at karaoke. [Laughs again]
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
MW: Yes, “Are you crazy?” I tend to have a single-minded intensity that makes my family tell me constantly that I am nuts. My mom is crazy is something you will hear often from my kids in a slightly loving way. I think that I am just wired that way. I am programmed for productivity and that is what feels good to me, accomplishing something. My life is all about a giant To Do list.
KW: Judyth Piazza asks: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
KW: Thanks again for the time, Mia, and best of luck with the Multicultural Children’s Book Day.
MW: My pleasure, Kam.
To learn more about Multicultural Children’s Book Day visit: http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/