As a reader and a parent, I’m especially happy to see so many Asian and Asian American illustrators for kids’ books. It’s refreshing to see more nuanced and realistic ways of visually representing kids of Asian descent. In other words, there are more and better avenues for our kids to see themselves in picture books. In honor of the New Year, the first batch of books here involve “new and changing perspectives.” Each of these picture books will encourage children to see their worlds through new or changed lenses.
Lovely by Jess Hong
Recommended ages: 4 years and up
Out of the dozen books in my review pile, my youngest daughter returned to Jess Hong’s book Lovely several times over. It might be Hong’s cheerful and quirky cartoonish illustrations, showing a diversity of people not only with different skin tones but with a range of features: a “sharp” punk rock granny in a spiky jean jacket, for example, or a child with one blue and one brown eye. She liked the hands spelling out “lovely” in American Sign Language, each wearing a ring that also shows its corresponding written letter. Bodies with tattoos, freckles, a pair of braces, fluffy hair and straight, hairy legs in heels – all of these, accompanied by a reassuring label of “lovely.” I think that she also liked the book’s simple message: “lovely is different, weird, and wonderful.”
I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien
Recommended ages: 5-8 years
This book follows immigrant students Jin (from Korea), Maria (from Guatemala) and Fatimah (from Somalia), who have come to a new school and are beginning to adjust. Students who are immigrant (or other “new students”) may recognize some of their experiences: longing for the familiar, learning a new language and acclimating to new surroundings. Schools and students who are welcoming new students will learn useful ways to create community from this book. Writer Anne Sibley O’Brien, who also illustrated this book, says that she leaned on her own experience of being a new elementary school student in South Korea. My daughter recognized this book as a “Children’s Choice” contender and was happy to read it again.
The Storm by Akiko Miyakoshi
Recommended ages: 3-7 years
Charcoal drawings and clever uses of color splashes make this a good read for our many Northwest rainy days. A young boy has been promised a trip to the beach, but a big storm threatens his family’s plans. As the storm builds, he falls asleep and his imagination empowers him to face and transform his fears. (Translated from the Japanese edition, Taifuu ga kuru.)
Look Up!, by Jung Jin-Ho
Recommended ages: 4-8 years
This cleverly illustrated book, told entirely from a bird’s eye point of view, will delight kids who like visual puzzles. After a few pages, the puzzle begins to make sense: the scratches and circles on the left are trees, the mass of squares in the middle is a city sidewalk, the black bar on the right is the railing of a balcony. And the feet at the far right belong to a little girl in a wheelchair, asking passersby to “look up!” Sharing the little girl’s view, we see people “like ants,” like stones in a river. Eventually, one little boy does look up, and what ensues is one of the most charming acts of kindness that I’ve seen in children’s literature.
The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito and illustrated by Julia Kuo
Recommended ages: 4-8 years
Where is the sound of silence? Among the “stream of sounds” that is Tokyo, a koto player tells young Yoshio that the sound of silence is the most beautiful sound. And he sets off to find it. This book treats a complex philosophical question in a beautifully simple way that children will understand.
In the afterword, writer Katrina Goldsaito explains that she drew her inspiration for the book’s exploration of ma, the sound between sounds, from Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. Illustrator Julia Kuo used her own memories of Tokyo artists, authors and companies to add details to the city scenes in the book. Kuo’s use of pen drawings, combined with digital color, add up to a wonderful series of illustrations that are reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints: vibrant colors that become somewhat muted, as if overlaid on actual wood.
Grand Canyon by Jason Chin
Recommended ages: 7-12 years
For slightly older readers who prefer nonfiction (and/or enjoy hiking), Jason Chin’s book is a marvelous achievement. I was especially moved by this educational book, built around an Asian American father and his daughter on a hike through the canyon. There aren’t many images of contemporary people of color enjoying the outdoors. Chin is a master of meticulously detailed and researched illustrations, which include rock layers and approximate dates, an explanation of sedimentary rock formation and portraits of the animals one can find along the hike. However, even with all of this information, the book’s generous size and spacious layouts mimic the expansive feel of the canyon, and a breathtaking four-page foldout at the end of the book shows readers a panoramic view from the top.
No Kimchi for Me! by Aram Kim
Recommended ages: 3-7 years
Can eating kimchi be a rite of passage? This is the premise of Aram Kim’s charming book about Yoomi, a Korean cat whose older brothers exclude her from playtime until she’s willing to eat kimchi. Yoomi tries kimchi as a condiment on several different foods, with no success. But Yoomi’s halmoni (grandmother) has a solution – and a recipe from the author’s mother – that saves the day. Fans of Rosemary Wells’s book Yoko will also appreciate Kim’s treatment of food and acceptance.
Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee, illustrated by Man One
Recommended ages: 6-12 years
Published by local company Readers to Eaters, this book – a mini-biography of Chef Roy Choi and his Kogi street food trucks and restaurants – is an earnest tribute to the power of food to cross boundaries and bring people together. This theme perfectly mimics Choi’s street tacos with Korean barbecue toppings, cooked with “sohn-maaash” (translated by the book’s co-authors as “the flavors in our fingertips,” or handmade food cooked with love). Rather than using a glossary at the end, the book uses occasional sidebars with translations of Korean words, which somewhat distract from the flow of the story. Nevertheless, many readers will recognize the feeling of Choi’s family restaurant in his childhood: “Family together, making food. Roy’s best good time.”
One of the most exciting aspects for me about the book is its abundant use of vibrant graffiti art, created by Latino graffiti artist Man One. The book’s characters walk in front of street murals, but they also walk down graffiti-splattered pages, spray painted with bold brushstrokes. This crossover of street art to children’s book art is one that that I hope will pave the way for different segments of potential readers.
A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui
Recommended ages: 5-10 years
What an exquisite book about immigrant family life, aching through lovingly rendered details. From the peeling labels on the reused Miracle Whip jars, to the Spanish/English signs on the 24-hour bait shop, to the young boy who asks why his father must work two jobs – this is a picture book unlike most others I’ve ever seen. Unlike the other fishermen who visit this “different pond” past midnight, the young Vietnamese American speaker and his father are fishing for their family. Between jobs, the father awakens the young boy in the middle of the night to take him fishing. What they catch is not just the food for the family table, but also glimpses of the father’s life in Vietnam before their escape to America.
From poet Bao Phi’s lovely descriptions of minnows that swim “like silver arrows” to Thi Bui’s gorgeous, emotive illustrations in muted blues and greens, this is a quietly powerful book that will resonate across and beyond immigrant and refugee families.
The Fox Wish by Kimiko Aman, illustrations by Komako Sakai
Recommended ages: 2-4 years
(Originally published in Japan as Kitsune no Kamisama)
Roxie has left her jump rope at the park, and she and her younger brother Lukie set out to retrieve it. At the park they find a group of young foxes using it – but the foxes still want something more. Winner of the Japan Picture Book Award, this whimsical book focuses on the tiny but significant wishes of childhood. Sakai’s charming acrylic gouache, pen, and oil pencil illustrations might remind readers of Charlotte Zolotow’s books for children, with the adorable foxes playing a starring role.
La La La by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Jaime Kim
Recommended ages: 4-8 years
Renowned children’s book author Kate DiCamillo is known for stories of small figures struggling in big worlds, such as The Tale of Despereaux and Flora and Ulysses. She conceived of this book as one young girl’s search for companionship, using the word “La” as a beacon. When her concept met illustrator Jaime Kim, the book became a call-and-response journey through orange autumn landscapes and glowing purple starlit skies. Kim’s illustrations carry the bulk of the storytelling work, but do so admirably.
Chibi Samurai Wants a Pet by Sanae Ishida
Recommended ages: 3-7 years
My daughters and I have hoped for a series about Little Kunoichi, the tiny ninja girl, and our hopes were answered this year. Seattle-based Japanese American author Sanae Ishida returns with a spinoff in the Little Kunoichi universe, the adventure of Chibi Samurai. Children’s books almost always involve a “want,” and Chibi Samurai wants a pet. Ishida’s watercolor illustrations are, as always, delightful, and this book is filled with even more “Easter egg” treasures for children to find: the cloth-weaving crane of a Japanese folktale, the Space Needle, and Little Kunoichi’s pet ninja bunny doing what she does best. Envying the friendship of Little Kunoichi and her bunny, Chibi Samurai sets off on a quest for a pet of his own. The “reveal” of his ultimate choice as a pet steals the show and will send readers eagerly paging back through the book for more.
Where’s Halmoni? by Julie Kim
Recommended ages: 7-10 years
Noona and Joon have come over to visit their Halmoni (grandmother), but she’s nowhere to be found. A search through her house leads them to her bedroom, where a covered painting on the wall is revealed as a doorway to another world. The sister and brother set out to find their grandmother, aided and hindered by various creatures from Korean folktales including the Moon Rabbit, the Tiger, the Dokkebi and the Fox. (Even worse, Joon’s fox backpack is running out of juice boxes and snacks.) This graphic novel format for younger readers might be somewhat confusing – we never quite find out where Halmoni was, or why she left at first – but the end papers at the front and back of the book provide important plot and context clues.