In between designer outfits, fashion shows and celebrity cameos, you see images and videos of her kids. Three young children with colorful outfits, big personalities and lots of love surrounding them are the highlights of her Instagram.
Which makes sense in the life of fashion editor turned Instagram fashion partnerships director and children’s book author Eva Chen. Family is important to Chen, as evidenced by the snapshots of Ren, 7, Tao, 5, and newborn River, whom she shares with husband Tom Bannister, and of her parents smiling and laughing alongside their grandkids.
Families are the connective tissue that makes people who they are, shaping each other through generational constellations, these bright clusters that provide a guiding light for the next era. Chen explores that through the eyes of Mei, the young girl learning to love herself at the center of “I Am Golden” (Feiwel & Friends, 40 pp., out Tuesday). Chen emphasizes that who you are, and where you come from is something not just to be tolerated but celebrated and showcased.
“People talk a lot about self-acceptance and self-awareness. And I always felt like for kids that was such a neutral term, when really what we want kids to do is celebrate self-love and celebrate who they are,” Chen says.
Chen wants the joyfulness to leap off the pages which feature beautiful illustrations by Sophie Diao depicting Mei on her journey. She points to a moment where Mei is riding on a dragon “feeling uplifted and that she’s leaving behind all of that negativity to embrace who she is.”
There’s a similar bright sense of joy in Chen’s previous books, including “Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes,” “A Is for Awesome!” and “Roxy the Last Unisaurus Rex,” but there’s a thoughtfulness in its reflections on self-worth that sets “Golden” apart.
Self-love is a timely message, specifically for Asian American communities across the country who have been profiled, harassed and killed in higher numbers as COVID-19 has raged for two years. For Chen, like for many others, the start of the pandemic was a major turning point.
“The first time I heard the term ‘China virus’ and just the dread that I felt trickling over me, I was like, ‘Oh God, this is not going to be good.’ And sure enough, within a few weeks there were some hate crimes against Asian elders in New York and there were a lot on the West Coast,” she says.
“I remember calling my dad and mom and saying, ‘This is happening. Be careful, like don’t wait like, don’t speak Chinese when you’re on the street, like wear a baseball cap or you know, wear sunglasses, like hide who you are. ‘ “
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Chen, 42, says amid her concerns about racism and being targeted, she had “an opportunity to think about my culture and being Chinese.” She also was able to slow down as the world decelerated around her and start inquiring more about her parents and their experiences.
“The silver lining is I did feel like I got to spend more time with my parents and ask them questions about what was the hardest part about coming over here. ‘Who was here? What jobs did you do? Where did you live?’ I think a lot of people, some people have this relationship with their parents, but I feel like we just never talked about a lot of those things. Now, because of the book, I feel more comfortable doing that.”
The USA TODAY bestselling author says “Golden” is “my most personal book because, even though I love the other ones obviously, this one’s probably the closest to my family history.”
One portion of the book looks at the bullying Mei might face; Chen says it “definitely brings back that vivid experience of feeling like you’re quite isolated because I was one of the few Asians at school.”
She recalls a classmate asking if she got a pair of Nike sneakers she wore from Chinatown. “They must be fake,” she remembers him saying. The same classmate alluded to Chen “going back to where she came from” and pulling back his eyes at the corners to make them slanted.
Chen’s childhood experiences linger with her to this day.
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“At first, I didn’t talk to my parents about it because we didn’t have that kind of relationship and then also … my parents didn’t have a toolkit of books or TV shows to turn to,” Chen says.
Chen wants “I Am Golden” to be part of a toolkit for parents and kids: for sparking joy, acceptance and conversation. She cites the new Asian Sesame Street character and the first Chinese American doll from American Girl as steps in the right direction for kids to see themselves as good enough and worthy for being who they are.
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Like other parents of color who talk to their children about their identity early on, Chen has discussed with Ren and Tao what it “means to be Chinese, what it means (for them) to be half Chinese.” The book’s release coincides with Lunar New Year (Chen showed her kids decorating red envelopes to correspond with the Chinese New Year days before the holiday on her Instagram story, naturally), one of the many nods to her heritage.
Chen and Diao sprinkled “little nuggets” of Chinese culture through the book they “hope people will spy, like the jade, even the food in the spread where they’re eating. Every single dish has a personal significance.” Those gems also speak to tradition, and Chen says she’s been able to “grow even closer to my Chinese American heritage” through thinking of these customs.
“It’s never too late to start. I become more aware of (traditions) every day and it’s something that I want to continue to embrace and evolve,” Chen says.
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