In her own words: Mia Wenjen blogs obsessively on children's books and young adult literature at Pragmatic Mom and creative Asian Americans at JadeLuck Club when she's not chauffering around her three kids.
It was about twenty five years ago when Amy Tan published The Joy Luck Club and I remember how excited I was to finally be able to read a book that reflected my culture that I actually purchased the hard copy which was a splurge for me at the time. I was too young to realize as a child growing up that I felt marginalized watching the one hour of TV a day and never seeing an Asian face. It was as if looking Asian was something slightly embarrassing and certainly not an asset.
Asian American children's books did not exist at all so it's been very exciting for me, as a children's and YA book blogger at PragmaticMom, to watch it emerge and even, dare I say it, flourish? !To keep this genre alive and well, we all must read, read, read these books and others. It's wonderful to read books with my kids that reflect their experiences, whether that means they balance their cultural heritage easily or with a struggle like some of these characters in the books below.
I chose these books, most are published this year, because they truly tell an authentic and important story of being Asian American. Many of these authors have won prestigious awards as well for their work as well.
What are your favorite Asian American authors and books? Please share.
10. Vanished by Sheela Chari
Eleven-year-old Neela dreams of being a famous musician, performing for admiring crowds on her traditional Indian stringed instrument. Her particular instrument was a gift from her grandmother—intricately carved with a mysterious-looking dragon. When this special family heirloom vanishes from a local church, strange clues surface: a tea kettle ornamented with a familiar pointy-faced dragon, a threatening note, a connection to a famous dead musician, and even a legendary curse. The clues point all the way to India, where it seems that Neela’s instrument has a long history of vanishing and reappearing. Even if Neela does track it down, will she be able to stop it from disappearing again?
Sheela Chari’s debut novel is a finely tuned story of coincidence and fate, trust and deceit, music and mystery.
Sheela Chari's first book is masterful mixing a multi-cultural experience of growing up Indian American in Boston with a well paced and difficult-to-put-down mystery. Her character, Neela, is named after her niece, and gives the reader a realistic and sensitive understanding of what it's like to grow up as a second generation Indian American with parents who also try to walk the fine line between embracing their culture and fitting in. [chapter book for ages 8 and up]
I have a book review plus our Skype author visit here.
9. The Year of Books by Andrea Cheng
In Chinese, peng you means friend. But in any language, all Anna knows for certain is that friendship is complicated.
When Anna needs company, she turns to her books. Whether traveling through A Wrinkle in Time, or peering over My Side of the Mountain, books provide what real life cannot—constant companionship and insight into her changing world.
Books, however, can’t tell Anna how to find a true friend. She’ll have to discover that on her own. In the tradition of classics like Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books and Eleanor Estes’ One Hundred Dresses, this novel subtly explores what it takes to make friends and what it means to be one.
Anna's strategy when her best friend trades up the social ladder leaving her friendless is to turn to books and family for company and solace. It works pretty well but there is a price to pay for social climbing and her friend feels like she may have made a mistake. Should she take her back? [easy chapter book for ages 8 and up]
8. Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia
Aneel s grandparents have come to stay, all the way from India. Aneel loves the sweet smell of his grandmother s incense, and his grandfather, Dada-ji, tells the world s best stories. When he was a boy, adventurous, energetic Dada-ji had the power of a tiger. Hunh-ji! Yes, sir! He could shake mangoes off trees and wrangle wild cobras. And what gave him his power? Fluffy-puffy hot, hot roti, with a bit of tongue-burning mango pickle. Does Dada-ji still have the power? Aneel wants to find out but first he has to figure out how to whip up a batch of hot, hot roti Overflowing with family, food, and a tall stack of fun, Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji is sure to warm the heart and tickle the tummy. Hunh-ji! Yes, sir!
Superheroes need not be young or wear costumes. Sometimes even one's beloved grandfather can be a superhero too! And it turns out that eating hot, hot roti is grandfather's version of Popeye's spinach. The good news is that it also tastes good! [picture book, ages 2 and up]
7. Jojo Eats Dim Sum by James Kye
Jojo Eats Dim Sum is the first in a new and exciting series of children's books with the aim of introducing children to the joys of various Asian cuisines. The star of the book is Jojo, a young girl with a sense of adventure and a daring appetite. In stark contrast is her baby brother, Ollie, who prefers to eat pea soup at every meal. The story encourages children to be more open to foods that are unfamiliar, thereby opening doors to other cultures. In Jojo Eats Dim Sum, Jojo eats her way through some of the most popular dim sum dishes, culminating in chicken feet, which are unfamiliar to most Westerners or unappetizing to those who have encountered them. But Jojo loves chicken feet, as she loves most dim sum dishes. Each story in the Jojo Eats series leverages a fun narrative to carry the young reader through the culinary journey, which is interspersed with lessons on how to pronounce foods in the local language. Jojo Eats Dim Sum is an irresistible book that children will want to read over and over again. Each beautiful book is in the shape and size of a menu, adding to the charm of Jojo's culinary adventures.
Asian culture revolves so much around food and family to the point where the two are almost one and the same. We eat communally and this strengthens our bonds. In this charming picture book, Jo Jo, who isn't Asian American, enjoys the unusual delicacies found at Dim Sum. I think the message here is that Asian food is good (and nothing to be ashamed of even if it looks weird or smells funny) and kids with well developed palates like it too. [picture books, ages 2 and up]
6. Money Boy by Paul Yee
Ray Liu knows he should be happy. He lives in a big suburban house with all the latest electronic gadgets, and even finds plenty of time to indulge in his love of gaming. He needs the escape. It’s tough getting grades that will please his army veteran father, when speaking English is still a struggle. And he can’t quite connect with his gang at high school — immigrants like himself but who seem to have adjusted to North American life more easily. Then comes his father accesses Ray’s internet account, and discovers Ray has been cruising gay websites. Before Ray knows what has hit him, his belongings have been thrown on the front lawn, and he has been kicked out. Angry, defiant, Ray heads to downtown Toronto. In short order he is robbed, beaten up and seduced, and he learns the hard realities of life on the street. Could he really sell himself for sex? Lots of people use their bodies to make money — athletes, actors, models, pop singers. If no one gets hurt, why should anyone care?
A gritty Young Adult novel, Money Boy doesn't pull any punches about what it's like to grow up Asian in Canada when your father finds out that his son is gay. Sadly, this is someone's reality. [Young Adult, ages 15 and up]
5. Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream by Jenny Han
Clara Lee likes her best friends, her grandpa, kimchi, candy necklaces (her signature look!), and the idea of winning the Little Miss Apple Pie contest.
Clara Lee doesn't like her mom's fish soup, bad dreams (but Grandpa says they mean good luck!), speaking in public, or when her little sister is being annoying.
One day, after a bad dream, Clara Lee is thrilled to have a whole day of luck (Like!). But then, bad luck starts to follow (Dislike!). When will Clara Lee's luck change again? Will it change in time for the Little Miss Apple Pie contest?
That Clara Lee is Korean American and living in the mostly Caucasian mid-west is a subtle point in this story and that's the beauty of this easy chapter book for ages 6 and up.
4. Dumpling Soup by Jama Kim Rattigan
Marisa gets to help make dumplings this year to celebrate the New Year. But she worries if anyone will eat her funny-looking dumplings. Set in the Hawaiian islands, this story celebrates the joyful mix of food, customs, and languages from many cultures.
Perhaps it's because my kids are all mixed up being of mixed ancestry including Chinese, Japanese and Korean, but that is increasing becoming more and more common. Again, it's the food that connects everyone to each other and to their culture, even if it's a mixed-plate. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
3. Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters by Lenore Look
Alvin Ho is back, and this time he’s facing his biggest fear: The Great Outdoors.
Alvin Ho is back and his worst fear has come true: he has to go camping. What will he do exposed in the wilderness with bears and darkness and . . . pit toilets? Luckily, he’s got his night-vision goggles and water purifying tablets and super-duper heavy-duty flashlight to keep him safe. And he’s got his dad, too.
Lenore Look’s touching, drop-dead-funny chapter book about an Asian-American second grader—with illustrations by New York Times bestselling illustrator LeUyen Pham—is perfect for beginning and reluctant readers alike, and has tons of boy appeal.
Lenore Look's book have wide appeal that break down barriers of race. Her Alvin Ho series is just plain humorous and if Alvin Ho is a quintessential geek, that's beside the point. [easy chapter book for ages 7 and up]
2. Ting and Ling: Not Exactly the Same by Grace Lin
Ling and Ting are twins. They have the same brown eyes. They have the same pink cheeks. They have the same happy smiles.
Ling and Ting are two adorable identical twins, and they stick together, whether they are making dumplings, getting their hair cut, or practicing magic tricks. But looks are deceiving--people can be very different, even if they look exactly the same.
This is a pitch perfect easy reader for kids who are just starting to read on their own. It has Asian references like making dumplings but Ting and Ling have wide appeal to any child of any ethnicity. I think of it as the heir to the Little Bear series. [easy reader for ages 4 and up]
1. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Shang
In this humorous and heartfelt debut about a split cultural identity, nothing goes according to plan for sixth-grader Lucy Wu.
Lucy Wu, aspiring basketball star and interior designer, is on the verge of having the best year of her life. She's ready to rule the school as a sixth grader and take over the bedroom she has always shared with her sister. In an instant, though, her plans are shattered when she finds out that Yi Po, her beloved grandmother's sister, is coming to visit for several months -- and is staying in Lucy's room. Lucy's vision of a perfect year begins to crumble, and in its place come an unwelcome roommate, foiled birthday plans, and Chinese school with the awful Talent Chang.
Wendy Shang is the heir to Amy Tan in children's literature and The Great Wall of Lucy Wu is a spot on realistic portrait of what it's like to be third generation Asian American with all the pressures of high expectations but with the self identification of being just like everyone else. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Additional reading suggestions welcomed! Add them to the Comments below.