In raising my daughters, I have sought to find books with Asian American characters so that they can see themselves in the stories they read. I want them to have a different experience than I did, as I seldom saw Asians represented in literature or on the big screen. Already I’ve noticed a difference in the way they perceive themselves, the way they dream and talk about the future. I’m so happy these children’s books about Asian American kids exist, and they’re so good.
Please note: this list is admittedly heavy on the East Asian American childhood experience, mostly covering Chinese, Korean, and Japanese American life.*
RUBY LU, BRAVE AND TRUE BY LENORE LOOK AND ANNE WILSDORF
Ruby is a spunky 7-year-old with an adventurous, lovable life. Most days she loves everything, from her cute little brother, Oscar, to her talented mother who always knows what she needs. But she balks when Oscar ruins her magic tricks and when her parents don’t think she’s old enough to drive. This is an enjoyable, witty, and superbly written chapter book featuring an Asian American kid with personality and imagination. Luckily readers can find more in Ruby Lu, Star of the Show and Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything.
ALVIN HO: ALLERGIC TO GIRLS, SCHOOL, AND OTHER SCARY THINGS BY LENORE LOOK AND LEUYEN PHAM
This six-book series is hilarious. It’s an Asian American version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and is great for reluctant readers (and book worms). Alvin is in 2nd grade and he’s afraid of literally everything. I love everything about this series! Alvin is adorable, his thoughts amusing, and his jokes are designed for both kids and adults. A great book to read aloud in class or at home.
JASMINE TOGUCHI, MOCHI QUEEN BY DEBBI MICHIKO FLORENCE AND ELIZABET VUKOVIC
This chapter book series is the first to feature a Japanese American heroine. Jasmine Toguchi is 8 years old and tired of being second to her older sister. This year she wants to be the first to do something different and special before her sister nabs her chance. She wants to pound mochi rice and be the first girl to do this traditional activity reserved for boys. The adventures continue in Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth; Jasmine Toguchi, Drummer Girl; and Jasmine Toguchi, Flamingo Keeper.
CLARA LEE AND THE APPLE PIE DREAM BY JENNY HAN AND JULIA KUO
Clara, a Korean American 3rd grader, dreams of being Little Miss Apple Pie, but she’s afraid of public speaking. With a stroke of good luck, she feels confident about pursuing her dream, but must accept inevitable disappointments.
MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS (GRADES 4–8)
THE YEAR OF THE DOG BY GRACE LIN
One of our favorite books with a Chinese American main character. The book is funny, relatable and charming. Pacy Lin, the sensitive and sweet protagonist of this series (whose life is also based on the author’s own memories of growing up), recounts a year in her life in which she is on a quest to find herself, her talent and what she’s meant to be. Along the way she enjoys the warmth of family life and of friendship. The series continues in The Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days, all of which are a delight to read. My daughters loved them all.
STAND UP YUMI CHUNG BY JESSICA KIM
Yumi Chung’s greatest dream is to be a stand-up comedian, but she’s shy and she doesn’t think her parents would support it. She’s a Korean American who doesn’t want to disappoint her parents’ high expectations of her. Somehow she has to ace her tests and save her family’s Korean barbecue restaurant all while going to comedy camp in secret. This funny middle grade book is not just about jokes and hilarious scenarios, it’s also about overcoming insecurities and reaching for your aspirations.
PIE IN THE SKY BY REMY LAI
Eleven-year-old Jingwen immigrates to Australia and tries to cope with tremendous change. While not set in America, this story made the list anyway because of the similarities of growing up in an English-speaking country. I love the graphic elements in this book, as well as the boy main character who dreams about baking cakes. It’s funny yet touching to see how he deals with the loss of his father and the loneliness that comes from not speaking the language. He’s often stuck doing everything with his little brother as he adjusts to life in a new country.
THE GREAT WALL OF LUCY WU BY WENDY WAN-LONG SHANG
One of the funniest middle grade books with a Chinese American main character. Sixth grader Lucy Wu thinks she’s about to have the best year of her life as the school basketball team captain. She’s about to enjoy a newfound independence, too, now that her sister has moved out of her bedroom, but then her Yi Po (Great Aunt) comes to visit and takes half of Lucy’s space. As Lucy gives up parts of her life for Yi Po, she finds herself gaining so much more than she expected.
MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS BY LISA YEE
Millie is a unique character to follow around for the summer. She’s an 11-year-old genius trying to fit in but doesn’t quite succeed with the high schoolers she’s attending school with, nor the 6th graders she’s already outperformed. Her mother signs her up for volleyball and to tutor Stanford Wong, a royal pain. She doesn’t think life could get any worse until she meets Emily, who doesn’t know her IQ score and just might be her first friend. The story continues from Stanford’s perspective in Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time and then from Millie’s friend, Emily, in So Totally Emily Ebers.
AMERICAN GIRL JULIE STORY COLLECTION BY MEGAN MCDONALD
Even though this American Girl series follows the life of Julie Albright growing up in San Francisco during the 1970s, it does a great job showcasing Chinese American life through Julie’s friendship with Ivy Ling. Julie’s best friend, Ivy, is a third generation Chinese American who loves gymnastics, her family, and having fun with Julie. The friendship between these two girls is so positive throughout the six-part series it’s hard not to love the way they support each other and celebrate their unique situations in life. All the books are beautifully illustrated. Note: The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter, a Julie Mystery (a separate addition to the central series), is packed full of history about Chinese immigration to Angel Island. Also check out Good Luck, Ivy, by Lisa Yee, which is Ivy’s own book, written from her perspective.
AMERICAN BORN CHINESE BY GENE LUEN YANG
One of the few middle grade books authored by a male Asian American that provides insight into what it’s like growing up as a Chinese boy in America. This graphic novel tells three different stories, one of which is about Jin Wang, one of the only Chinese Americans at his new school. He struggles with his identity as he faces his insecurities and the pressure to assimilate to the dominant culture.
FRONT DESK BY KELLY YANG
This is an intense book, despite the fun-looking cover. The author reveals the hardships of immigrant life and the struggles they faced with poverty and racism when coming to America with only $200 in their pocket. Mia, the 10-year-old protagonist whose life is loosely based on the author’s childhood, works the front desk of a motel bravely overcoming the terrible treatment they receive at the hands of Mr. Yao. Along the way, she and her parents create a community for other struggling immigrants and people of color. The story continues in Three Keys.
PIPPA PARK RAISES HER GAME BY ERIN YUN
A contemporary reimagining of Dickens’s Great Expectations, the story follows Korean American Pippa Park as she wins a basketball scholarship to a private school and reinvents herself in order to fit in. Pippa tries to keep her old and new lives separate but wonders if it’s possible to hide her true origins.