Monday, December 8, 2014

Kids' Chapter Books With Asian Americans as Main Characters

When I was a kid, there were virtually no books about being an Asian kid in America.  I grew up reading Sweet Valley Twins, Ramona, Boxcar Children, and the like, and I enjoyed them. However, there was never a character that I could really relate to, growing up as the only Asian in my grade at my school - looking different than everyone else, celebrating different holidays than everyone else, eating different food than everyone else, speaking a different language at home than everyone else.

Fast forward 20-30 years, and there's some great choices now available for elementary-aged kids, with main characters who are Asian American. Here are some of my favorites:

Grace Lin's Year of the Dog and sequels Year of the Rat and Dumpling Days. Young Pacy is in elementary school and grows up in an suburban America.  She lives her life as a clear minority in her school, but feeling for the most part like other American kids. As the books progress she notices that she's not as American as the rest of her friends. As she struggles internally with being Chinese on the outside, yet American on the inside, she learns about Chinese traditions and she learns to embrace her heritage and her unique situation of being Chinese, growing up in America.

Lenore Look's Alvin Ho series is a written from the point of view of a Chinese American elementary-aged boy. Alvin has many fears to overcome and the books cover a wide range of situations. It is very kid-friendly to read, with humorous lists, and many 'kid-comments' strewn throughout the book. It does not focus on his identity as an Asian, but he does struggle with not having many friends and being different from kids around him, which is a common situation among Asian American kids. We've read 2 of the books so far.

Lenore Look's other series Ruby Lu stars a 7-year-old Chinese American girl who has her share of antics. She reminds me alot of Beverly Cleary's Ramona-has her set ideas about stuff, gets into trouble, learns some lessons along the way, etc. There are little bits related to being Chinese woven throughout the book, but it is not the main focus. She goes to Chinese school and Chinese words are mentioned here and there(using Cantonese and Taishanese dialects), and the first book sets it up for some relatives from China to come live with them, but for the most part, it's the story of a little girl growing up in America.   I have not read any other books beyond the first book yet.

In the Year of the Boar and Jacking Robinson by Bette Bao Lord follows a 5th grade girl who immigrates from her comfortable, familiar life in China to New York City. While she deals with culture shock and being the outcast, she feels a connection to Jackie Robinson, as an example of someone of another race who lives the American dream, and discovers that she too can embrace America as the land of opportunity.

 Year of the Book is the first of a series of books by Andrea Cheng about an elementary-aged Chinese girl growing up in America. Being Chinese is secondary to the storyline, where Anna struggles to make friends and navigate the social dynamics at school. In the other books, her Chinese heritage comes more into play

My kids are mixed race, and that is a whole other ballgame. I haven't really seen many books for kids that deal with being bicultural, so I only have these to mention:

Half and Half by Lensey Namioka tells the story of a middle-school aged girl who is half Scottish and half Chinese. She faces comments made by various people who assume she must be more of one culture than another and she wrestles with what it means to be bi-racial. While she explores both of her heritages, she ends up with a dilemma where she is double booked and seems she must choose between doing 2 events, one highlighting Scottish culture, and one highlighting Chinese culture.

Shanghai Messenger by Andrea Cheng follows a half Chinese girl of 11 who is invited to visit her extended relatives in Shanghai.  At first apprehensive about her visit, she discovers a wonderful new world in China among her relatives who welcome her.  This isn't actually a chapter book, but it's not quite a picture book either. It's written with poetic prose, with short glimpses of moments throughout this journey, and as you read about each event, you can see her letting go of her worries (of not being accepted for not being fully Chinese, of being among people who speak a language she doesn't speak, etc) and embracing her Chinese heritage.  Being half-Chinese plays a role in her insecurities, but I think even those who are full-Chinese, but grown up in America, would be able to relate.