Asian Pacific American (APA) parents and community members must challenge publishers to provide more quality literature where the protagonists are strong APA role models. Many books for children draw narrow portraits often shaped by deeply embedded stereotypical caricatures like the karate kid, heavily-accented foreigner, geisha girl, math/science nerd, and rice rockets (modified cars). These fallacies are misrepresentations, not only for our children about both themselves and their cultures, but are also poor portrayals for other readers. Many of these books for children lack cultural and human authenticity.
Our young Asian Pacific Americans are vibrant and dynamic. The experiences of young APAs are a unique part of the American fabric that simultaneously weaves together many different subcultures. During this holiday season when storytelling is an integral part of family time, we should not only embrace winter classics, but we should also endeavor to share stories that reflect the rich and unique experiences of our children like the story of “Moon Shadow” in Laurence Yep’s “Dragonwings”. Yep’s story is about the struggles of immigrants. Moon Shadow and his father are brave individuals who successfully build and fly one of the earliest airplanes, a metaphor for soaring over the walls of personal fears and societal prejudices encountered in the United States. Another exceptional example of the immigrant experience is Shaun Tam’s stunning book, “The Arrival”, for upper elementary grade students and older. This outstanding piece of art is a collection of 128 pages where an immigrant’s experiences are visually told; the book has no words and is a treat for the mind. The Arrival is the universal story of immigrants who arrive in a new country seeking opportunities. The moving portraits illustrate numerous challenges immigrants must overcome in order to create new lives. The book reflects the experiences of first-generation APAs and encourages U.S.-born Asians to explore their family histories.
There are other authors who present the dreams, struggles, and triumphs of Asian Pacific Americans while describing institutional and social segregation they faced. Making book club lists non-stop is Jamie Ford’s “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet”. Best for teenagers, it is a heartwarming story that centers around the friendship between a Chinese American boy and a Japanese American girl during World War II and the subsequent internment of the Seattle Nikkei community. Ford’s historical fiction is an excellent way to engage young readers to think about the experiences of individuals during the 1940’s where heightened racism towards Asians Americans existed not only in the United States, but the Northwest in particular. The story also examines generational conflicts through the actions of Henry, the young Chinese American protagonist, and his father.
While it is important for our children to recognize their unique history in America, it is also important to invest in literature that is steeped in everyday experiences that echo the lives of their readers. For preschoolers, “A is for Aloha” by Stephanie Feeney is an outstanding picture book. Asian Pacific American children were photographed being kids together: laughing, slurping noodles, and playing in the rain. A contemporary novel for primary grade students is “Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, And Other Scary Things” by Lenore Look. This is a funny, smart chapter book about a second-grade boy who is “allergic” to girls, scared of a piano teacher with three fingers, and loves being called “son” by his dad. While Alvin does not speak much to others, he has an incredibly active imagination whether in creating a PDK, Personal Disaster Kit, or dressing up as the superhero Firecracker Man. The modern brush illustrations by LeUyen Pham are full of the motion and frenzy that reflects the life of a spirited youngster.
APA children’s literature needs to transcend group stereotypes and provide readers with multidimensional characters. While we have highlighted a few exceptional books, there are still many more exciting and illuminating stories to be written. We hope parents recognize and encourage the artist, writer, cartoonist, comedian, and poet inside their children. To combat stereotypes, APA youth must be encouraged to express their feelings, illustrate their fantastic worlds, and write their stories. These stories will be filled with their vibrant character. We hope to see many more inspiring and funny books written by APA authors so that all readers will more fully understand the rich lives and contributions of Asian Pacific Americans.