Families From Many Lands: Books for Asian-American and Pacific Islander Month
Since 1992, communities across the United States have celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islander Month (which started as a week-long celebration in 1979). To highlight the diversity of the region, let’s take a look at some outstanding children’s books that feature characters with Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage:
While there are many books and movies about Ellis Island, there is definitely a lack of awareness about its counterpoint in California. Throughout the 20th century, Angel Island served as the entry point for 1 million Asian immigrants, mostly from China. Immigrants that arrived at Angel Island were often kept for several weeks or even months (unlike the immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island, who were largely detained for only a few hours while they underwent medical examinations). During their time on Angel Island, immigrants expressed their hopes and fears through letters, diaries, poems and wall drawings that were discovered after the facility closed in 1940. Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain is an eye-opening and incredible read about a little-known aspect of U.S. immigration history, written by a master of children’s nonfiction.
Learning about everyday customs, such as food, schooling and marriage customs are often fascinating to children (and adults!). Uncle Peter’s Amazing Chinese Wedding is a darling and appealing look at a Chinese wedding ceremony, through the eyes of Uncle Peter’s niece.
Wendy Wan-Long Shang’s The Great Wall of Lucy Wu features an all-too believable and common conflict between American-born children and their immigrant elders. Lucy is much more interested in basketball than Saturday Chinese classes, and is not thrilled to be sharing her room with her great-aunt, who is visiting from China for several months. Along the way, Lucy learns to appreciate her great-aunt and her Chinese heritage, although never in a way that is preachy or condescending.
Laurence Yep has written about Chinese heritage and history for decades, when the Ameican children’s literature world had very few authors of Asian descent writing stories. Star Fisher and its sequel, Dream Soul are my favorite Yep titles. Joan is finding it difficult to fit into her 1920s West Virginia community. The Lees are the first Chinese family in the community and are met with suspicion and ignorance. Luckily, there are pockets of kindness that help ease the transition, and the universal conflict between immigrant children and their parents is authentic. Dream Soul continues the Lee’s story, with Joan eager to celebrate Christmas, even though her family does not.
Fans of myths and legends definitely need to read The Shark King, which is based upon a Hawaiian legend of a boy who’s half-human and half-shark. Nanaue’s attempts to assimilate into a village of people is an unusual and memorable read.
Luka and her grandmother, Tutu, are best friends. Luka wants a bright and multi-colored quilt, but traditional Hawaiian quilting demands that no more than two colors may be used. Luka is upset, Tutu is hurt, but through imagination, conflict resolution, and understanding, differences are smoothed over by Lei Day. The bright collage artwork in Luka’s Quilt is striking, with an appealing story that all can relate to.
Baseball is a very popular sport in Japan, as evidenced by Take Me Out to the Yakyu. A Japanese-American boy enjoys going to games with his American grandfather and his Japanese grandfather; through his explanations of the similarities and differences of the games in both countries, readers enjoy an entertaining cross-cultural experience.
Allen Say is a long-established Japanese-American children’s author; although I adore all of his stories, The Favorite Daughter is my #1 pick. Say draws upon personal experience for his stories; his daughter’s struggle with accepting and honoring her biracial heritage is among his most personal. Yuriko is teased for her Japanese name and her striking looks (she has blonde hair and Japanese facial features). When Yuriko wants to change her name to something more “American,” her dad’s gentle guidance allows her to embrace both her Japanese and American heritage. The book ends with a picture of Allen’s daughter in a kimono and visiting Japan for the first time in her twenties; readers’ heartstrings will be pulled for both Yuriko and her father during this difficult but ultimate successful time.
The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is a dark and tragic time in our country’s history. Prejudice and hostility toward Japanese-Americans boiled over when Pearl Harbor was bombed; the living conditions that Mitsi must endure in the internment camps is chaotic, confusing, and humiliating. Missing her friends and her beloved dog, Dash, makes it hard to bear; only the resiliency and dignity of the families makes life bearable. Dash is a must-read for fans of World War II era fiction.
With the publication of her second book, The Land of Forgotten Girls, Erin Entrada Kelly is establishing herself as a much-needed author of stories centered on Filipino-American children. Blackbird Fly, published in 2015, follows eighth grader Apple as she deals with school bullies and plays the guitar. Like many middle school stories, a major plot point involves separating from former friends and finding friends who share your newly found interests and passions; Apple faces the same dilemmas as she discovers two new friends who share her love of music (especially the Beatles). Recommended for fans of coming-of-age stories, but not quite ready for YA.
Inside Out and Back Again (2011 National Book Award winner and 2012 Newbery Honor recipient) is undoubtedly reminiscent of the many struggles young Vietnamese immigrants faced when they arrived in the States during and after the Vietnam War. When Ha’s family is released from a refugee camp, they end up in Alabama, where Ha faces enormous challenges with learning English and dealing with racist classmates. Ultimately, Ha’s resolve and strength sees her through these difficulties; this novel-in-verse is an extraordinary read. Thanhha Lai’s follow up, Listen, Slowly, is another superb tale (reviewed in March 2016).
Whenever I order new holiday books, I look for books that feature something unique about the holiday. Duck for Turkey Day is one of my favorite Thanksgiving stories for that reason. Although Tuyet’s Vietnamese family celebrates Thanksgiving, as do many immigrant families, they serve duck instead of turkey for their feast. Tuyet is quite uncomfortable with that fact, and dreads talking about the day during class discussions. She is surprised to find that having a non-turkey Thanksgiving is actually not that unusual in her class; one family enjoyed lamb, another enchiladas, while another served tofu turkey! Teachers looking for a worthwhile story to read for Thanksgiving should definitely consider this, as it might prompt an intriguing discussion and learning time.
I blogged about “Robot Reads” for ALSC this month; take a look for some techie tales for young readers.
Looking for more program highlights and staff suggestions for children and young adult readers? Make Kiddosphere your source for all the latest on what to read and what to do for kids!
Jennifer Schultz, Youth Services Librarian, Fauquier County Public Library