16 Books for Children and Teens that Center AAPI Characters and Experiences

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and there are many official events and tributes happening around the country to celebrate the contributions and achievements of the AAPI community. However, it’s also important that the activities we attend and media we consume throughout the entire year reflect a wide variety of experiences, including a diverse selection from the AAPI community. To that end, we have collected 16 books for children and teens that center the AAPI experience in different ways, but this is just a taste. Feel free to put your favorite books that focus on the AAPI community in the comments.

Elementary School

Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines by Jeanne Walker Harvey spotlights the visionary artist-architect who created the once controversial, now beloved, Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It follows her as a child exploring shapes and wilderness, and the illustrations reflect the text beautifully. In addition to discussing the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the book details her continuing career as an architect, artist, and designer.

Mountain Chef by Annette Bay Pimentel details the essential role of Tie Sing, a Chinese-American chef who accompanied millionaire Stephen Mather on a high-end camping trip for a group of investors and legislators. The trip was meant to convince the guests to create a national park service to protect the natural wonders of the USA. Tie Sing’s position as head chef for this trip proved invaluable in ensuring the men were comfortable and satisfied during their “rustic” trek across the camping route. The appreciation for the wilderness that would one day become Yosemite National Park and the perseverance Tie Sing shows throughout the journey will be a sure inspiration.

Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers by Rajani LaRocca is centered on preparing for the Hindu celebration of Raksha Bandhan, a celebration of brothers and sisters. This year Bina feels she is old enough to make bracelets for her brothers on her own, although she enlists the “help” from her dog Tara. Readers follow Bina as she sneaks around on a reconnaissance mission to discover each brother’s favorite and least favorite color. What results is a seamless story of cultural awareness, sweet family interactions, and an energetic dog aimed at preschool aged children. 

Wishes by Mượn Thị Văn is built on the author’s deeply personal memories of leaving Viet Nam as a refugee. The picture book’s themes of loss, perseverance, and hope will resonate with every reader. Each page has just one line of text that shares a wish as the family of refugees prepares for and experiences a dangerous journey to a safer shore. The wishes come from various objects and natural elements during the journey, thus providing emotional safety for the little girl at the center of the story. Be forewarned: the heavy sense of longing for home and safety will ensure a few tears are shed by anyone with a heart. Still, hope is the overarching feeling throughout the book. Wishes is one of the most perfect picture books I’ve read. 

Middle School

A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat is a fantasy novel set in Thailand and inspired by Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. This book follows two young people as they discover their own worth and values in a world of upheaval, and deep societal inequities. Pok is a boy born in a prison, and he must figure out how to make a better life. Meanwhile, Nok has grown up in privilege, but her learned sense of right and wrong is challenged and grows during the story. 

Stargazing by Jen Wang is a heartfelt and beautifully told graphic novel of friendship, individuality, independence, and learning from differences. We are introduced to Christine, the main character, at a musical performance where she shows both insecurity in being seen as “not as talented” and different as well as a willingness to go (slightly) against the norm. This sets up the relationship between Christine and Moon, a girl who is all confidence and impulse and…difference. The two become fast friends, and when conflicts arise, great lessons are learned. Stargazing leads readers through a new friendship with moments that display great tenderness, empathy, and understanding even as discomfort, jealousy and regret appear. Learning to understand and celebrate different traditions and choices is key to this story. Set in a Chinese-American community where everyone seems to have similar values and likes and aspirations, the graphic novel shows how different we all are, even when we seem to be very similar from afar.

All Summer Long by Hope Larson illustrates the push and pull of growing up and growing apart. Bina, the main character, learns terrible news to start her summer vacation: her best friend Austin is going to soccer camp, which means their summer traditions will be disrupted, perhaps forever. Bina is awkward and likeable as she stumbles and dances over the summer. The adventures and mishaps are relatable and have just enough fantastic twists to keep the story stimulating and still believable. The follow up All Together Now is also recommended.

Keep It Together, Keiko Carter by Debbi Michiko Florence is a light, fun, typical middle grade novel about friendship, dating, and all the drama in between. Keiko learns that not every friendship needs saving, and that fear of change can be overcome. The voice in this novel reads authentically, and the events and relationships are acutely relatable for older middle grade and younger YA readers. 

Displacement by Kiku Hughes is a graphic novel that follows Kiku, who is bored with her mother’s search for her grandmother’s childhood home in San Francisco. When they discover that a mall has replaced the home, Kiku is transported, via a sudden fog, to an auditorium in the mid 1930’s where her grandmother (as a child) is playing the violin. Upon returning, she realizes no time has passed in the “present.” The next morning, the time travel happens again, but this time she is in line to be interned with other Issei and Nisei in 1942. Even upon returning home for the trip, Kiku is whisked away to the Tanforan Assembly Center and Topaz Interment Camp over a year’s stay. While there, Kiku makes friends, feels helpless and frightened, and is unsure about where she belongs during her time at the camps. The last section of the novel ties her experience together perfectly to the opening scenes with her mother and to the current events in the USA right now.

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park is a poignant novel about a bi-racial (Chinese/white) girl in the mid-19th Century United States. Hanna wants to belong, but she also wants to be true to herself. She has traveled to the midwest with her father following the death of her mother, and she is immediately thrust into the realities of exclusion and racism, all while also working through grief and upheaval. With detailed description that includes humor and social commentary that we still grapple with today. 

Three Keys by Kelly Yang is the second in the Front Desk series about Mia Tang and her family and friends. With issues as series as hiding undocumented immigrants and facing economic peril to less serious (but just as important to a 6th grader!) challenges like embarrassment over her family and not liking her new teacher. Via the characters and their relationships, Yang makes sure to spell out and comment on the 1994 Proposition 187 in California, which would remove children of undocumented immigrants from public schools. She does all this while maintaining the believable tone and plot of the novel and the entire Front Desk series. 

High School

Under the Broken Sky by Mariko Nagai is a story of survival and unimaginable choices told through verse with a 12-year-old’s point of view. Set in 1940’s Manchuria, near its border with the Soviet Union, the book opens with emotional heartache as sisters Natsu and Asa lose both their parents. Orphaned, the turmoil only gets more serious as their town is evacuated due to Soviet invasion and they cross rivers and wide lands to find safety. 12-year-old Natsu must make a devastating choice so she and her sister can survive. This book of verse is an effective World War II history lesson wrapped in a coming-of-age story.

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei is a graphic memoir of his experience of being imprisoned in US Japanese internment camps as a four-year-old child during World War 2. The first person account is heart-breaking, and Takei adds historical context and details the build-up of hateful acts against those of Japanese heritage. He also shows how his childhood trauma shaped the rest of his life as well as how the United States still repeats similar official and personal acts based on prejudice.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang is a graphic novel that is also a modern classic. It follows high schooler Jin Wang as he struggles with figuring out how to be comfortable with his Chinese heritage even as he wants to fit in with his peers. Using intertwining stories that force the reader to confront racist stereotypes and societal expectations, Yang manages to both educate readers and lead them to learn about Chinese culture and the tug-of-war surrounding the embrace and rejection assimilation. NB: The novel portrays deeply racist caricatures and text as a method of confronting the prejudices main character Jin Wang experiences and discovers in himself. We recommend reading this graphic novel actively and critically. 

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim is a heart-wrenching novel that tackles mental illness, balancing a new relationship with family obligations, and just trying to be a regular teenager. Readers will follow Anna Chiu as she cares for her mother who often stays in bed for days as well as when she tries to just live her life. Chim manages to create deeply resonate scenes that include being embarrassed at her mother’s public behavior, watching a parent’s mental decline, and being a token Asian answering all manner of questions about an entire culture. There’s so much more including issues around family, friends, making choices about her future, and identity, but the novel manages to never feel jumbled or rushed. 

This Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda is an historical fiction novel that introduces us to the main characters of Alex Maki and Charlie Levy via their school-assigned pen pal letters. Alex, a Japanese-American boy who lives on Bainbridge Island in Washington state, and Charlie, a Jewish girl who lives in Paris, France, begin their letter writing in 1935, and they continue long after their school assignment has ended. The prose portion of the novel begins in chapter two on December 7, 1941 as Alex’s community finds out that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. The description of Alex’s experiences at school, filled with teachers and students expressing racist remarks and behaviors, and their eventual imprisonment in Manzanar is painfully authentic. The penpals grow closer, although eventually the war disrupts their letters. Alex joins the all-Japanese American 442nd regiment to aid in his father’s release from the FBI, but he also wants to try to find Charlie. Forewarning: This novel will break your heart. 

As always, please ask at your local library or bookstore for additional suggested titles. There are many!

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