The first book I ever bought was an adaptation of "Avatar: The Last Airbender." It was the spring of 2006, and as a kindergartner without cable TV, I had no idea what "Avatar" was, nor the phenomenon it would become. All I knew was that, as I perused the book fair offerings, feeling rich as a king with $10 in my pocket, I had found something special.
Set in an Asiatic world where the people of four nations “bend” the four elements through martial arts, the animated TV series revolves around a 12-year-old Air Nomad monk, Aang. Aang is the eponymous Avatar: the world’s singular peacekeeper who, wielding air, water, earth and fire, maintains balance between the four nations.
When the story opens, however, Aang has been frozen in an iceberg for 100 years. In his absence, the Fire Nation has unleashed a century-long campaign of genocide and colonization. Aang and his friends spend the series trying to stop the Fire Nation from fully conquering their world.
Even in its first run on Nickelodeon, from 2005-2008, “Avatar” was wildly popular, drawing millions of viewers and shattering records. This past summer, as the pandemic raged and protests bloomed, it surged back into public consciousness after its addition to Netflix, becoming one of the most-watched shows in the country. Excitingly, Netflix has announced plans to create a live-action adaptation, hopefully wiping from our collective memories Hollywood’s unbearably grim, whitewashed first attempt.
The representation in "Avatar" — all of the characters are people of color — drew me in as an Asian American kid living in Wilmington, North Carolina, which even today is only 1.4 percent Asian. It’s richly steeped in Asian and Native culture and philosophy, from the Hindu-influenced reincarnation cycle undergone by the Avatar, to the occasional on-screen “Asian squat,” to Uncle Iroh’s beloved jasmine tea.