Chen, Shibutanis Pen Children’s Books With Emphasis On AAPI Representation
by Lynn Rutherford
Nathan Chen celebrates at the figure skating men's singles medal ceremony during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 10, 2022 in Beijing.
When Nathan Chen, and Maia and Alex Shibutani, were growing up, there weren’t many children’s books with characters that looked like them.
Now, the figure skating Olympians have added choices to the catalog: Chen’s “Wei Skates On,” published by HarperCollins in February, and the Shibutanis’ “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who Inspire Us All,” released by Viking Books for Young Readers last month.
“Within the children’s book market, there aren’t really many AAPI-centered children’s books,” Chen, 24, said in an interview earlier this year. “I’m sure there are young Asian American boys that are looking to pursue a potential career in athletics, and hopefully this will give them some inspiration to consider figure skating.”
The son of first-generation immigrants from China, Chen has a point. A 2019 survey by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center found less than 9 percent of children’s books published that year featured Asian or Asian American main characters. (Surveys in subsequent years were limited by the pandemic.)
Chen drew on his Olympic experience to create “Wei Skates On” — not his gold-medal triumph in Beijing in 2022, when he outpaced the field by more than 22 points, but four years earlier in PyeongChang, where stumbles on all three jumps in his program left him mired in 17th place. It took a winning free skate, with six clean quadruple jumps, to lift him to fifth overall.
“That 2018 Olympics is something that was such a meaningful experience in my life,” he said. “I think I learned more from it than I even did in 2022.”
Chen called his attitude in PyeongChang “Olympic gold or bust.” Only after his disappointing short program put gold out of reach could he shake off the pressure and skate freely. As he wrote in his memoir, “One Jump at a Time: My Story,” written with Alice Park and published by HarperCollins in November:
“My mentality going into the free program was entirely different from what it was before the short program. I didn’t care about the results anymore. … I told myself my goal was to start the program when the music began and end it when the music finished, and whatever happened in between would happen.”
Chen distilled that message down to its essence in “Wei Skates On,” hoping to lend youngsters some insight on how to alleviate feelings of stress and pressure.
“The experience I had at the Games was a relatable experience for a lot of people,” he said. “You know, it’s not just an experience of what it’s like to (compete) at the Olympics. It’s more just about fear, worry, concern about having a problem at hand — a job, a goal — and then not being able to fulfill those targets you’re trying to achieve.”
A poignant episode in the book — Wei’s family comes to the rink to watch him practice, and he trips over his own skates — is rooted in one of Chen’s most painful times at the 2018 Olympics.
“That was a direct reference to me practicing in Chungcheong (in South Korea), where the U.S. figure skating team was training (before their events),” he said. “My family came down to watch me, and I just could not do anything, and it was a very stressful time.
“That’s something that, when I look back on 2018, I remember distinctly. I always felt the shame that my family was there watching me, and I just couldn’t do anything.”
Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani celebrate at the medal ceremony for figure skating - ice dance free dance during the Olympic Winter Games PeyongChang 2018 on Feb. 20, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.
Chen has not competed since Beijing, focusing instead on achieving a B.S. in statistics and data at Yale University in Connecticut. Currently, he is sitting for final exams as he finishes up his junior year.
“I definitely miss being in competition,” he said. “I miss that environment. I miss traveling to the competition. ... But it’s nice to have things that are filling my time, that I’m able to focus on, without having to sort of look back too much on the skating.”
Soon, though, he’ll put on his skates for the U.S. Stars on Ice tour, which kicks off on May 20 in Anaheim, California. In addition to group numbers, he will perform two solo routines.
“I recently did a music video for Elton John, so I might bring that back for one of my numbers,” he said. “I’ll probably play around with music. (After finals) I will head up to Montreal to see (U.S. ice dancer) Jean-Luc Baker and potentially (choreograph) a new program with him, if time allows.”
The Shibutanis’ picture book profiles 36 people of AAPI heritage, ranging from pioneering Hollywood actress Anna May Wong and Duke Kahanamoku, a Hawaiian swimmer who popularized surfing, to contemporary figures including wrestler and actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and 2020 Olympic all-around gymnastics champion Suni Lee.
“The challenge of creating this book was making sure there was a balance of historical and contemporary figures, people across different industries and career paths,” Alex said.
The two-time U.S. ice dance champions, who are of Japanese descent, won two bronze medals in PyeongChang and were inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in January. Alex is the first Asian American man to receive this honor.
“There are seven athletes in the book, and three (Kahanamoku, and 1948 Olympic diving champions Victoria Manalo Draves and Sammy Lee) are more historic,” he said. “(Kids) are not apt to see much social media about those figures, and we wanted to highlight their achievements and what they overcame.”
The Los Angeles-based Shibutanis are devoted to connecting with young people around the world and have acted as sports envoys for the U.S. State Department for years, traveling to Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Last October, they served as emcees for the U.S.-Japan Council Annual Conference in Tokyo.
The siblings hope their latest book can help educators incorporate AAPI history into elementary school curriculum.
“We’ve had a lot of librarians, as well as teachers, come to our book signings, and they’ve all been excited,” Maia said. “They’ve had a hard time finding books to share with their students, about this subject material.”
Lynn Rutherford has covered five Olympic Games, including the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing for TeamUSA.org. Based in New York, she is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.