In a year beset by sickness, fear, restrictions, isolation, and even death, CSEAS launched a book initiative in December 2020 for middle- and high-school students. Its aim was to collapse boundaries, bring home the faraway and foreign, and increase empathy and understanding of others in Michigan’s young readers.

Using Title VI funds awarded by the U.S. Department of Education and working with its local partner, Literati Bookstore, the center purchased and shipped copies of four young-adult novels representing Southeast Asia to 27 schools in 18 Michigan towns. The titles were: Girl of the Southern Sea (Indonesia) by Michelle Kadarusman, House Without Walls (Vietnam) by Ching Yeung Russell, The Weight of Our Sky (Malaysia) by Hanna Alkaf, and Patron Saints of Nothing (the Philippines) by Randy Ribay. All of the books feature gripping narratives of protagonists who practice courage, ingenuity, and resilience in the face of upheaval.

One of the teachers and media specialists who received the books was Ms. Stacey Crupi. She teaches English and reading at Seitz Middle School in Riverview, where about 80% of the 670-student population is white, and only 2% is Asian American, Pacific Islander, or Native American. Ms. Crupi, whose district is doing in-person teaching, wrote:

Seitz Middle School student Max read Patron Saints of Nothing, which portrays the struggles and risks of Filipino-American teenager Jay Reguero to investigate his cousin's murder in the Philippines. The novel also explores the dual identities of children of immigrants in the U.S. and the Philippine government's deadly war on drugs. After reading it, Max reflected:

Author Ribay, who also teaches high school English Language Arts in northern California, would be pleased to hear that his novel had opened a window onto the world for Max and his classmates from this suburb south of Detroit.

In February 2021, at the MENA-SEA Teacher Program, a Title VI collaboration between CSEAS and the Center for Middle Eastern & North African Studies (CMENAS), Ribay told fellow teachers that his curriculum is consciously very different from the one he learned in Michigan, where he spent some of his childhood. The parallel worlds he straddled—of white America and the Filipino immigrant community—did not appear in the books circulating then in classrooms and school libraries. “The stories I had been reading in school failed me. I didn’t see myself in them.” So he began seeking—first reading, then also writing—stories that mirrored his reality and that of people like him. His autodidacticism led him to African-American literature, which served as the “inroad” to delving into Filipino diasporic literature. Ribay writes not to primarily entertain, but to amplify and normalize voices that have been marginalized. (Some of the best affirmation is when readers tell him, “My food is on the page!”)  

Immensely popular, the book initiative reached full capacity within 48 hours. As there is no shortage of empathy in the world and of stories from Southeast Asia, CSEAS has decided to regularly offer the book initiative to classrooms and libraries in the state and region.