It is almost the middle of February at Nieve Elementary School, and all the students—a classroom full of bears—are excited for the biggest holiday of the month. “Aim: Valentine’s Day!” is scrawled across the green chalkboard inside the gray and beige classroom. The bears chat amongst themselves, either talking to their neighboring classmates or walking over to other peers, discussing the big questions: who will send a card to whom? who will receive a card from whom? who will have the most beautiful card in the room?
But in Sylvia Yu’s (‘16) book, “From the Heart,” these are not the questions that end up being answered. Instead of focusing on who will send a card to whom, she asks us to ponder: who can and should be allowed to send a card to whom?
“Yukino loves Phoebe, whose sweetness makes her heart swirl.
‘But Ms. Frost,’ she asks, ‘can I send her a card if we are both girls?’”
The storyline, which tests traditional conventions of love, was initially just a submission for the NY-Area Diverse Minds Writing Challenge, a competition in which high schoolers write and illustrate a children’s book that communicates messages of equality, along with religious tolerance and diversity. A friend who knew of her interests in writing and drawing recommended that Yu apply during her senior year. Then, the submission won first place in the NY-Area region, earning Yu a $5000 scholarship and Stuyvesant a $500 grant.
“[Writing has] always been a big part of my life. I write not only as a means of manifesting my feelings into words, but [to make] my feelings seem more real and concrete,” she explained. “I’m also reaching out to an audience and making them validate what they’re potentially feeling.”
For this project, Yu’s initial mission was to normalize homosexuality for young children who are particularly sensitive to ideas otherwise stigmatized by the media and by society. Yu was inspired by her own bisexuality.
“My first introduction to non-heterosexuality was when a friend of mine came out to me back when we were in middle school,” Yu said. “It was entirely unexpected, and I had no idea how to respond.”
“Any attraction I had to girls, I associated as admiration, but to hear ‘bisexual’ for the first time then, I felt as if I were beginning to make sense of my own sentiments as well,” she described. However, although the thought of her being bisexual was rising to the surface, she didn’t come to terms with it until her junior year at Stuyvesant.
Part of the reason was its absence from popular culture. “I felt like sexuality was confusing in general just because you see lots of heterosexuality prominent in different sets of media,” Yu said. “If I had access to a book or just some form of media that said it’s okay to be non-heterosexual, that would have made my sexuality process when I was younger a lot less of a confusing stage.”
Lately however, Yu noticed that kids’ TV shows have been trying to promote the acceptance of homosexuality. One of her major influences in writing the book, for example, came from the children’s animated series, “The Legend of Korra,” in which the main protagonist, an empowering female adolescent, is revealed to be bisexual by the end of the season.
“It was a stepping stone in terms of children’s TV,” she said. “Generally, you see in Disney princess movies, the princess and her prince.”
Yu noticed that the TV show was very effective in reaching out to their viewers, because the children can connect to the characters, and thus wanted to spread her message in an equally relatable way. “I realized that a Valentine’s Day scenario was pretty common in elementary school,” she said.
Yu, however, expanded her story to be inclusive of racial and ethnic toleration as well. “I originally had been considering honing in on only two girls, while keeping the Valentine’s Day theme, so it’d be a book focusing more on sexuality than anything else,” Yu said, “but I was dissatisfied, because I knew I could do more with the idea of love. Ultimately, I wanted to leave a greater message that, in regards to love, what matters most is not the other person’s gender, background, appearance, or imperfections, but who they inherently are.”
Several pages into the book, bears of all fur colors, races, and physicalities come to ask their teacher, Ms. Frost, for some sage advice.
“Ashura loves Dolores, for she is playful, loyal, and kind.
‘But Ms. Frost,’ he asks, ‘can I send her a card if she is blind?’”
Yu was inspired by popular children’s books to use a repetitive structure and rhyme scheme. Two models she used for reference were Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree,” a story about selfless love, and Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones series.
Through this poetic and consistent setup, Yu is able to teach her readers an important lesson. Each of the scenarios for the bear’s Valentine’s Day problem may vary a little, yet Ms. Frost’s main piece of advice, the last sentence of her response to her student, always remains the same: “What matters the most is that you love her for her heart.”
Currently, Yu is majoring in creative writing in hopes of honing her writing and drawing skills to become a better author and illustrator. Although she does see the structures of children’s books as an effective way to convey her message, Yu does not envision herself only writing for children.
Her advice to aspiring writers? She said, “To write for what your younger self would want.”