Inspiration and Generations: 17 Books for Asian-American & Pacific Islander Month

The books below came to me initially because of their relation to East, South, and Southeast Asia or the Middle East. As I read, images recurred: accomplished individuals, resourceful kids, legends and traditions. But by far the most common—and somewhat unexpected—was grandparents.

On reflection I realized the theme is a natural one. While parents are often consumed with utilitarian tasks aimed at keeping us alive, grandparents are an intimate link to the long flow of ancestry and heritage that contributes to our identity.

Ancestry is, of course, only one of many such streams. Genetics and personal experience, world events and the swirling currents of majority culture shape our preferences and perspectives.

Even families that are not multiethnic experience cultural shift. Customs and celebrations that have endured for millennia morph and change. King for a Day describes a South Asian tradition that was banned on account of collateral hazards.

Neither is culture consistently neutral. Every society carries the weight of centuries of accumulated associations. Spirituality, gender roles, values, and class structures are just a few elements that merit thoughtful, respectful reflection and assessment.

In addition to regional culture, the titles below represent the traditional wisdom, scientific knowledge, and respect for nature preserved in many Asian contexts. I hope they will not only inform but inspire readers to contemplate and celebrate the varied streams of nationality, ethnicity, and history that flow through our families.

Iconic Traditions

The Secret Message, by Mina Javaherbin, ill. Bruce Whatley (Hyperion, 2010, 32pp, ages 5-9)

Upon reaching the end of this fable retold, I said, “Wait—what?” and turned back three spreads. Then I chuckled and showed my family. This author-illustrator team’s well-paired efforts conjure the flora and fauna, textiles and trade of historical Persia and India. They also preserve and deliver a clever tale based on a poem by the thirteenth-century poet Rumi. Born in what is now Afghanistan, Rumi is still widely read in the West as well as South Asia and the Middle East. 

King for a Day, by Rukhsana Khan, ill. Christiane Kromer (Lee & Low, 2019, 32pp, ages 6-10)

This title could spark thoughtful conversations on multiple levels. Khan’s protagonist Malik (meaning “king”) is portrayed in a wheelchair, though the text never draws attention to this fact. In the course of the annual kite flying contest, Malik deftly defeats the bully next door and obtains his neighbor’s kite, subsequently bestowing it on one of the bully’s victims. Another layer of complexity lies in the fact that the spring festival depicted here has been banned by the Pakistani government since 2007, due to safety concerns. Kromer’s multimedia visuals put on stunning display both the illustrator’s skill and the South Asia setting. Hand drawings are supplemented with backgrounds composed of textiles, handmade paper, and a wealth of other textured materials.

A Dupatta Is …, by Marzieh Abbas, ill. Anu Chouhan (Feiwel and Friends, 2023, 32pp, ages 3-6)

I first encountered the dupatta as a new college graduate teaching English in Pakistan in the 1990s. I was enchanted by the flowy, feminine grace of these long scarves that drape around the head or across the shoulders. As the title suggests, this volume celebrates not only the beauty but the wealth of functionality, symbolism, and tradition associated with the dupatta, which is so much more than an article of dress.

Inspiring Achievers

Tu Youyou’s Discovery, by Songju Ma Daemicke, ill. Lin (Albert Whitman, 2021, 32pp, ages 6-9)

I first heard of artemisinin two years ago, when our neighbors returned from Africa with an herb used to treat malaria. More recently, a Chinese friend told me about the Nobel-Prize-winning woman (b. 1930) who discovered it. “I have a book about her!” I exclaimed. Tu Youyou’s discovery has indeed circled and changed the world. In 2002 my husband could have benefited from this treatment when he had malaria in Central Asia; now our Chinese friend commends its cancer fighting properties. Daemicke’s timely work celebrates this relatively recent development in medical history, inspired by millennia-old Chinese tradition and the woman who spearheaded the research.

Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon, by Simran Jeet Singh, ill. Baljinder Kaur (Kokila, 2020, 48pp, ages 4-10)

Fauja Singh (b. 1911—yes, he’s still alive) inspires on many levels. Not only is he the only person known to have run a marathon at 100(!!), he was unable to walk until he was five years old. It was not until age fifteen that Singh succeeded in walking a full mile. His medical condition is unknown (and his birth unrecorded); he spent most of his life in a village in India’s Punjab region.

At age eighty-one Singh boarded an airplane for the first time to join family members in England. When depression set in, he battled it by taking up running. The same persistence that enabled him to finally walk in his youth led him to run his first marathon at age 89. He went on to set numerous world and national records. Singh’s Sikh faith and his Punjabi background feature prominently in the narrative; he and the author give at least partial credit for his achievements to his faith.

Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artistby Julie Leung, ill. Chris Sasaki (Scwhartz & Wade, 2019, 40 pp. ages 4-8)

This title reintroduced me to a lamentable episode that had faded from my memory since high school history class. From the late-nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese immigration, except under special circumstances. In 1919 Wong (1910-2016) and his father tailored their identities to accord with these exceptions. While his father was admitted, the nine-year-old was detained for months with other would-be immigrants. At last Wong was reunited with his father and, by dint of hard work at inglorious jobs and dedication to his artistic bent, he landed a job as a Disney animator. Though his career there was short lived, he left his mark as the inspiration for the background landscapes for Bambi. For the rest of the story of his 106-year life, check out the book (or watch the one-hour PBS American Master’s episode).

The Fearless Flights of Hazel Ying Lee, by Julie Leung, ill. Julie Kwon (Little, Brown, 2021, 48pp, ages 4-8)

A decade or so after Wong arrived on the West Coast, a young woman in Portland, Oregon, fought similar battles in her quest to obtain a pilot’s license. But Lee (1912-1944) succeeded, and in 1943 she joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) and became the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the US military. Already in the minority on many counts, she was one of only 132 women trained to fly fighter planes like the P-63 Kingcobra. Sadly, she died on Thanksgiving Day 1944, when radio tower miscommunication led to a collision between Ying Lee’s plane and another in Great Falls, Montana. Leung and Kwon pay worthy tribute to the legacy of this determined and courageous trailblazer.

Resourceful Youngsters

Cao Chong Weighs an Elephant, by Songju Ma Daemicke, ill. Christina Wald (Arbordale, 2017, 32 pp, ages 4-9)

Stories told by the author’s grandfather when she was a child in Jilin, China, inspired this clever tale of the clever son (196-208) of a Chinese ruler. A bent for science as well as writing and illustrating make Daemicke the ideal author for this engaging account of Cao Chong’s ingenuity. Back matter includes activities and explanations pertaining to weight and buoyancy, as well as an interactive section on Chinese history.

Building a Dream: How the Boys of Koh Panyee Became Champions, by Darshana Khiani, ill. Dow Phumiruk (Eerdmans, 2023, 40pp, ages 5-9)

In a floating community in Thailand,an innovative group of boys decided they wanted a soccer pitch. Developing the astonishing capacity to keep the ball on the field (and out of the water) and distribute themselves so as not to tip the pitch eventually formed them into a winning team. This Asian-American author-illustrator team has crafted an inspiring story about what teamwork and determination can make possible—anywhere.  

Nour’s Secret Library, by Wafa’ Tarnowska, ill. Vali Mintzi(Barefoot Books, 2022, 32 pp, ages 6-10)

Tarnowska draws on experiences from her childhood in wartime Lebanon to narrate this account of fictional children building a real-life library. Amongst the bombed-out streets and houses of 2010s Damascus, Nour and her cousin Amir spark a movement to rescue abandoned books. Little by little the basement collection grows into a resource and refuge for citizens seeking respite from the havoc overhead. Tarnowska and Mintzi’s combined efforts portray not only the destructive consequences of war but the allure of clandestine adventure and the treasures of literature—comfort, community, enlightenment, and hope. I can affirm the fulfillment of Tarnowska’s hope “that reading this book has fed your soul, for writing it has fed mine.”

Caring Elders

A Gift for Nai Nаi, by Kim-Hoa Ung (Feiwel and Friends, 2023, 32pp, ages 4-8)

Lyn Lyn recruits help from her grandmother (Nai Nai) to crochet a hat that she secretly intends as Nai Nai’s birthday gift. Although dubious about featuring what I took to be an American craft in a post on Asian heritage, I discovered that the popular stuffed toys turned out by crocheters of all ages are called amigurumi. Despite the Japanese name, evidence suggests the craft originated millennia ago in China. Chinese-American author Ung evokes a heartwarming model of intergenerational coaching and friendship.

Lotus & Feather, by Ji-li Jiang, ill. Julie Downing (Hyperion, 2016, 40pp, ages 4-10)

Downing’s gracefully precise watercolors are the perfect accompaniment to this lovely story about caring, healing, and overcoming setbacks. Grandfather and Lotus, who has lost her voice in a recent illness, rescue a crane injured by a hunter. When an earthquake rocks the village and flooding follows, the crane’s watchfulness repays their tender care and earns the gratitude of the entire village. Jiang is an internationally renowned author who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. For a review of her Eighteen Vats of Water, about legendary Chinese father-and-son calligraphers, click here: [insert link to AAPI 2023]. This title is also available in Chinese.

Nana, Nenek, & Nina, by Liza Ferneyhough (Dial, 2022, 32pp, ages 4-8)

This endearing story presents a truly multicultural family spread across three continents. Nina lives in the U.S., her father’s mother lives in England, and her mother’s in Malaysia. Simple text and charming illustrations offer much to contemplate. Ferneyhough highlights parallels and differences in the grandmothers’ respective language, experiences, clothing, climate, and lifestyle. Even for families that don’t represent mixed ethnicities, considering and discussing habits and customs contributed by diverse strains of extended family can prove fruitful.  

My Grandma and Me, by Mina Javaherbin, ill. Lindsey Yankey (Candlewick, 2019, 32pp, ages 4-8)

In a time characterized by friction both within and between faith communities, this is a profound representation of mutual respect and caring. Javaherbin lends a touch of levity to this piquant account of two religious traditions cohabitating within a single country. Sidestepping the irony of the setting (the Islamic Republic of Iran), Javaherbin avoids politics and focuses on the intimate friendship between two grandmothers—hers, Muslim, and her best friend’s, Christian. The text offers a glimpse of the world from an Islamic perspective while celebrating interfaith friendships.

The Truth about Dragons, by Julie Leung, ill. Hanna Cha (Henry Holt, 2023, 40pp, ages 4-8)

Leung and Cha usher readers into the contrasting dragon lore of Europe and Asia. A mother casts each of her young son’s grandmothers as wise women: One dwells deep within oak forests populated with hobgoblins and will-o-the-wisps, the other in an airy palace overlooking mountains and waterfalls, amongst bamboo forests, shape-shifting foxes, and mysterious moon goddesses. Each will tell the boy one truth about dragons. Cha skillfully evokes the beauty and mystery of both traditions, and the mother tells the son, “Inside your heart is where the two forests meet.”

My Grandfather’s Song, by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huynh Kim Liên (Make Me a World, 2023, 48pp, ages 4-8)

Luminous words and images portray the settling of the south of Vietnam, where pioneers carved out homes from jungles and marshes. The undeniable dangers of a life surrounded by nature are suffused with the beauty of living in harmony with it. Grandfather’s song follows his grandson from childhood to adolescence and adulthood, reverberating through earth and sea after he passes on. Publisher Christopher Myers writes that “Grandfather’s Song is a love letter to grandparents and legacies, seen and unseen.”

Eyes that Speak to the Stars, by Joanna Ho, ill. Dung Ho (Harper, 2022, 40pp, ages 4-8)

This lyrical book celebrates families and the beauty of diverse ages, ethnicity, and backgrounds. Dung Ho’s illustrations glow with color and imagination, invoking the rich heritage that undergirds a young boy who looks different from his classmates. For a beautifully illustrated biography by the same author, see Playing at the Border: A Story of Yo-Yo Ma, ill. Teresa Martinez(HarperCollins, 2021, 40pp, 4-8).

Sari-Sari Summers, by Lynnor Bontigao (Candlewick, 2023, 40pp, ages 3-7)

This lighthearted narrative captures the excitement of a child finally allowed to help in her grandmother’s general market. But when a heat wave strikes and business dies off, little Nora worries she’ll have to go home. A tempting recipe for mango ice candy in the back of the book allows readers to recreate Nora’s ploy to lure customers back to Lola’s sari-sari store. Bustling street scenes, speech bubbles, and vivid descriptions convey the sights, sounds, and scents of a Filipino town.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Story Warren website, May 22, 2024: “Inspiration and Generations” on Story Warren

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