Well-written and illustrated Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) literature for children can provide all readers with an authentic portrayal of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. When the writing and visuals are strong, AAPI children and youngsters have the opportunity to see role models from their communities in print, and nonAsians also have the chance to learn about the diversity and richness of AAPI cultures.
As an educator for almost forty years, children’s literature about Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities has been difficult to find. However, authors such as Laurence Yep, Yoshiko Uchida, and Allen Say were early leaders in writing and/or illustrating books about the AAPI experience. Their protagonists were careful to provide a bicultural viewpoint of AAPIs and include discussion of their lives in the United States. The characters were not portrayed as foreigners or outsiders—they were vested members and citizens of this country.
Many books, today and in the past, reinforce stereotypical images about members of the AAPI community from kung fu-kicking fighters to people who eat sushi and dress in kimonos. Frequently, books about AAPIs are often narrow in their presentation and more often reinforce cultural stereotypes rather than dispelling them. However, Yep, Uchida, and others provided strong protagonists; their characters were people who believed in themselves, contributed to the community, and worked hard to fight discrimination. They provided crucial literature for teachers and parents that described the experiences of early immigrants and their courage from Yep’s novel of “Dragonwings” to Uchida’s “Journey to Topaz.”
Along with Yep, Uchida, Say, and Aruego, today there are new authors who also provide new insights into the AAPI experience. These authors and illustrators include Ken Mochizuki, Lensey Namioka, Lenore Look, Cynthia Kadohata, Dia Cha, and Stan Sakai.
I chose the following books because the characters in these publications present people who fought for civil rights and/or made numerous contributions to our nation. The stories provide opportunities for young people to reflect upon many issues such as cultural assimilation, immigration, and racism, and also reinforce the values of courage, strength, hope, and belief in the human dignity of all people.
Favorite Five Picture Books
Illustrations are at the core of a well developed picture book. These books present authentic pictorial images of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
A is for Aloha by Stephanie Feeney
This picture book is one of my personal favorites because the photographs of AAPI students are engaging, fun, and beautiful. The children pictured are enjoying life; the photos are of real young people from many AAPI ethnic groups. The children are exceptional role models for all readers. The photos are not stereotypical, but provide an accurate reflection of AAPI children.
Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say
This is the 1994 Caldecott book award winner because of the stunning illustrations of Say’s grandfather who enjoyed living in both Japan and California. The story describes the feelings of a bicultural existence. One of the reasons I chose this book is because there were few picture books when this book was published that included warm and authentic illustrations of Asian Americans.
Dai’s Story Cloth by Dia Cha
This is a beautiful book that describes the difficult journey for many from the Hmong community as they fled their homes in Laos after the Communist took over Southeast Asia. The story is primarily about Dai’s family and told through the use of hand-made quilts. These embroidered tapestries show the peacefulness of their lives in Laos, the difficulty of living in a refugee camp in Thailand, and later their migration to the United States.
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki
Based upon a true story, this is about the identity and vision that Japanese American internees held of themselves as American citizens. Baseball represents an important element in their lives and the story describes the fight against racism of many when they returned home after the war.
Picture books illustrated and/or authored by Jose Aruego
Aruego has provided numerous fun books for his readers. As a long time illustrator he has created the drawings for many picture books such as “Leo the Late Bloomer,” “Milton the Early Riser,” and “We Hide-You Seek.” It is highly unlikely if you have read a great deal of picture books to young children that you have not read a book illustrated by the gifted Aruego.
Five Most Influential Novels for Middle School Readers
Dragonwings by Laurence Yep
This is a 1976 Newberry Honor Book which was made into a play. The story was a ground-breaking novel because it presented a Chinese American viewpoint about early Chinese immigration. The story is based upon a real individual, Fung Joe Guey, who built and flew a small plane in 1909 that improved on the biplane design of the Wright brothers. This story is about personal courage and persistence of a father and his son, Moon Shadow, when racism was at its height towards Chinese immigrants during the early 20th century. Another of my favorites written by Yep is “Child of the Owl” because it is about a young girl who struggles with her Chinese American identity.
Journey to Topaz byYoshiko Uchida
This novel was a ground-breaking book for children because it described the removal of Yuki and her family during the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. There were few stories that described the experience of many young people as a result of Executive Order 9066 which forced 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes.
Usagi Yojimbo: Book Two by Stan Sakai
This is a graphic novel about a samurai rabbit. I recommend that parents and teachers read this book before giving it to a child. It does include violence; the rabbit uses his sword in battle. This book is part of a series and has elements of a video game such as graphic illustrations, monsters, and lots of action. For parents who have trouble interesting their boys in reading, this could be a series that may be of interest to them.
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
This is a well-written, moving story about the experiences of a Japanese American family in the 1950’s who lived in Georgia. Though Katie and her older sister and younger brother are treated as foreigners in their own country, Katie brings hope and strength to the community after a family tragedy. Family love permeates throughout the novel.
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scarey Things by Lenore Look
Asians can be funny though most books present Asian Americans in more serious contexts. I chose this book because of the humor. The characters in the novel, which is written for elementary grade students, are full of life and creativity. Alvin doesn’t speak at school, but he sees himself as a superhero, Firecracker Man. He also has a PDK. This is short for Personal Disaster Kit.