May is Asian-Pacific Islander American Heritage Month, and while of course you should be reading these books all year long, it is nice to have a dedicated time to remind ourselves to explore a unique heritage. I adore all the books on this list of chapter books for Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month and I think you will, too. (Bonus: I finally got a list out in plenty of time for you to get them delivered in time to your library hold shelf before next month!)
I’ve separated the books into two categories: historical fiction and contemporary fiction chapter books, so no mater what your taste I think you’ll find what you are looking for. (Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links.)
Historical Fiction Books for Asian-American Heritage Month
Lawrence Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles is a 10 book series which tells the story of the Young family over many generations and two centuries. I haven’t read all 10 books yet, just a few, and they have all been page turners. My most recent read was Dragon’s Gate, set in 1867. Otter has always been in awe of his father and uncle who work for the railroad companies across the sea. When he gets there himself, however, working conditions, the bitter cold, racism and his uncle’s behavior serve to disillusion him. You don’t need to read the series in order (I haven’t) to enjoy them and Yep is a skilled author. You won’t want to put the book down. Best for ages 11 and up.
Other books by Yep:
- The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung: A Chinese Miner
- Chinatown Mysteries series
- City trilogy
Red Butterfly, by A. L. Sonnichsen, tells the story of a Kara, Chinese orphan who was abandoned — she speculates because of her gender and her disabled hand — and then informally adopted by an older American couple living in the country. At the start of the book, she lives with her American mother, who has stayed in the country illegally to look after Kara. Kara feels the typical push and pull of an eleven year old who both wants to spread her wings, as well as find comfort in a familiar home at the same time. When an accident happens, Kara is separated from her American mother and placed in the Chinese adoption system. I really enjoyed this book and free verse is a wonderful medium for this surprisingly complex and moving tale of a girl who must decide where she belongs.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhhà Lai is the story of Hà, a 9 year old girl living in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. Hà, her mother and three brothers escape the city on a ship as it falls to the communists. Rescued by the American navy, they eventually find their way to Alabama through the help of a sponsor. This story is suspenseful, touching and quite funny. Kids everywhere will relate to Hà’s description of learning English and it’s spelling and grammar rules! It is a story of fitting in, the importance of family, and hope even in sorrow. I loved it.
I also read Lai’s new book, Listen, Slowly, about a contemporary teen who visits her parent’s home country, Vietnam. It is also worth reading.
Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus. I started reading this book but it was snatched from my hands by my son who gives it a big thumbs up. It is an adventure story, inspired by historical events. In 1841, 14 year old Manjiro and 3 other men are stranded on an island off Japan during a fishing trip. Eventually they are rescued by an American whaling vessel but instead of returning to Japan, Manjiro travels with the Captain, attends school in America – dealing with the prejudice that comes with being an outsider – and heads to California during the gold rush. At the time, Japan was cut off from the world, and no one was allowed back into the country after leaving, but Manjiro risks his life to return.
Paper Wishes, by Lois Sepahban, is a story that addresses a too-often overlooked and shameful period in American history: the Japanese internment camps. I still find it shocking that the government forcibly relocated people of Japanese decent (and citizens, no less!) to the remote camps. Disgraceful. But independent from my soap box pronouncements, this is a wonderful book. 10 year old Manami and her family live on Bainbridge Island in Washington state when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. The U. S. government transports her family and others to a camp in the desert. When an attempt to smuggle her dog, Yujiin, under her coat fails, Manami stops talking. At the camp, she holds onto the hope that she will see Yujiin again one day. Her teacher at the camp helps her cope by giving her drawing paper so she can paint her feelings. A moving and powerful book.
The Master Puppeteer by Katherine Patterson. In 18th century Japan, 13 year old Jiro goes to work for an exacting and cantankerous puppet master. He gets caught up in a mystery surrounding the theater and a Robin-Hood figure named Saburo. The suspenseful plot is exciting but not without a lot of reflection about what it means to be responsible to others.
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata. This book was assigned reading for my son last year in 4th grade and he wrote a wonderful (if I do say so myself) report on the book with several other kids in his class. In the 1950s Katie and her family move from Iowa to Georgia, where there are very few other Japanese-American families. Katie’s parents work horrible jobs in a chicken processing factory and when her sister Lynn becomes ill, things go downhill fast. Through the difficulties, Katie focuses on Lynn’s ability to see “kira-kira”, a word that means the sparkling, glittering moments of life. My son did warn me that this book is “sad but makes you think”.
Read more by Cyntha Kadohata:
- Half a World Away
- Cracker: The Best Dog in Vietnam
One day my son came home to tell me his 3rd grade teachers were reading In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord aloud to the class. I mentioned I had it at home and he got really excited! I love that he wanted to read the book himself, even though he was hearing it at school. I’ve noticed that exposure to particular books at school is a huge selling point with kids. This is a really wonderful story about a 10 year old who moves with her family from China to Brooklyn. In her attempt to understand American culture and be accepted, she focuses on baseball as an entry point, making new friends along the way.
Dash by Kirby Larson. During WWII Mitsi Kashino and her family are forced by the US government to relocate to the Japanese internment camps. Mitsi is devastated to learn she will not be able to take her dog, Dash, with her. Dash is being cared for by a friendly neighbor who begins to write letters to Mitsi in Dash’s voice. The letters charm everyone at the camp, but Mitsi still holds out the hope that she will be reunited with her beloved dog. I enjoyed this book (I listened to it on audiobook) and thought it was so interesting that there are 2 books on this list in which dogs and internment camps play a central role. Dash is different enough from Paper Wishes that it is worth reading them both. Based on a true story.
Keeping Score by Lina Sue Park. Maggie is a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan (off to a good start!) thanks to her fireman friend, Jim, who teaches her all about keeping track of the scores. When Jim gets drafted and sent off to Korea, he and Maggie correspond until he suddenly stops writing back. When he returns from Korea, Maggie is determined to help him heal. I liked how Maggie was persistent in her desire to help her friend, and made such an effort to learn about Korea. Her maps and notes are included in the story, which takes place over several years. You may be put off with the idea of your kids reading a book that involves the Korean War, but please don’t be. This book is quite special.
Linda Sue Park has many other books that you will enjoy, including:
- A Single Shard
- Seesaw Girl
- Project Mulberry
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr is based on the true story of a girl who contracts cancer as a direct result of the atomic bomb. In the hospital she begins to fold 1000 origami cranes but only reaches 644 before her death. The subject matter makes it a better book for the older end of the age range of this list and I encourage parents to read it with their children. It is a sad book, of course, but books teach us empathy by showing us stories from all walks of life.
Fiction Chapter Books for Asian-American Heritage Month
Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly. Apple is going through the difficult tween years. Her friends have mysteriously turned on her, she is teased about her looks at school, and she find her mother embarrassing, especially when she cooks Filipino food for her friends. To top it off, for some reason, her mother does not want her playing the guitar or listening to her father’s Beetles albums. I liked this book and it realistically captures the angst of the early teenage years.
Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins. This a short chapter book which I initially put on an early chapter book list. Use it to spark a conversation about the economic role of women in different cultures. In Bangladesh, Naimi feels frustrated that as a girl she is constantly told she cannot work to earn money for her family. When she accidentally ruins her father’s rickshaw she disguises herself as a boy and meets someone who will change her life.
The Thing About Luck, a National Book Award winner by Cynthis Kadobata, is narrated by Summer, a contemporary Japanese-American girl whose family works as wheat harvesters. This year, Summer’s parents are in Japan and so she and her special needs brother, Jaz, and her grandparents travel with the fellow wheat harvesters from Kansas to Texas and Oklahoma. Summer’s narration includes fascinating descriptions of how the harvest is brought in and her experience reveals a lifestyle that most American children don’t know exists. When Summer’s grandparents are too ill to help, the 12 year old draws upon her own strength to help bring in the wheat when a crucial deadline looms. This is an excellent book and is a great counterpoint to pioneer farm life!
Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream. Jenny Han is best known as a YA author, but she has a couple of outstanding books for younger readers. After Clara Lee’s grandfather tells her that her bad dream means she will have good luck, this charming Korean-American girl looks at the rest of her day and her participation in the Little Miss Apple Pie contest in a positive light.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. This is possibly my favorite chapter book ever and I consider it a modern classic. Minli’s family lives in poverty and Minli sets out on a quest to find the Old Man of the Moon and change her family’s destiny. Along the way she is accompanied by the Jade Dragon and her journey is filled with twist and turns of fate. Lin deftly weaves together Minli’s quest, her father’s stories and wonderful illustrations to create a memorable tale. Don’t forget its companion book, Starry River of the Sky.
More by Grace Lin:
- The Year of the Dog
- The Year of the Rat
- Dumpling Days
- Ling & Ting series
Same Sun Here is an epistolary novel by Silas House and Neela Vaswani. A school pen pal program matches Meena, an Indian immigrant girl in New York City, and River, the son of a coal miner in Kentucky. The two write thoughtful letters about their wildly different experiences but across the distance they learn to see their similarities as well as appreciating those differences. Meena describes her life as her father prepares for his citizenship exam and the family tries to avoid being discovered by the landlord as illegal sub-letters. River worries about his absent dad, ill mother and joins his activist grandmother in the fight to save the local area from the devastation caused by coal mines.
In Warp Speed by Lisa Yeewe meet the same cast of characters that were introduced in the first of four companion novels: Millicent Min, Girl Genius is the first, and all four are worth reading. I just finished this book about Marley, a self-described geek and loser. Marley is getting bullied at school, he lives in a run down old movie theater that his parents own and is a major Star Trek fan. When his AV teacher takes ill, he is transferred to a home economics class. Changes start to happen and Marley makes a few new friends, finds joy in running and figures out a way to stand up to the bullies. Marley’s self-deprecating and humorous narration will make this book appealing to kids and Lee avoids pat and trite resolutions.
More by Lisa Yee:
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami. I actually checked out and read the sequel, The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic first. However, it seems better to put the first book on a reading list! Dini loves Bollywood movies but when her mother announces they are going to live in India, she is disappointed they will be living in a small village instead of Bombay. Dini is sure that now she will never meet her idol and Bollywood star, Dolly Singh. In an extraordinarily fun, convoluted and charming series of events Dini gets her wish. Krishnaswami has many picture books you will want to look for, too.
My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman. Tara is getting ready for her Bat Mitzvah, but she is conflicted about her cultural identity and her faith. Her Indian mother converted to Judiasm before Tara was born so Tara knows that “technically” she is Jewish, even though a girl at school tries to make her think otherwise. Tara is navigating middle school waters for the first time, re-evaluating her relationship with her best friends and having in-depth conversations with the Rabbi about God. Even though Tara experiences the typical early teen angst in her relationship with her parents, it is clear that they are a supportive unit and her extended family, also living in NYC, are an integral part of their family life. This is a terrific read, especially for kids who come from similarly complex backgrounds, but also to teach kids about the diverse experiences of multicultural families.
Tua and the Elephant, by R. P. Harris, was a much loved read aloud in our home.Tua is a Thai girl who forms a bond with an elephant. When she sees the elephant being mistreated by its owners, she rescues it and takes it home to her aunt’s house. Pursued by the two bumbling mahouts (the term for elephant owners and trainers) Tua and her new charge make their way to an elephant sanctuary where they both find a new life. My sons enjoyed this book and I liked how it gave them a peek into a completely different world.
Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan. After reading this book and really enjoying it, I read a few of the reviews at Amazon in which several people mentioned that some of the traditions described in the book are either not accurate or give a distorted view of Indian culture. I hesitated recommending it for this reason and you will want to make your own decisions. Whatever you decide, I would encourage you to not take it (or any book) as the definitive word on a society’s culture and traditions. Read other material to deepen your understanding. The story follows Koly, a teenage window, who is abandoned by her grieving mother in law in the holy city of Vrindavan. Koly’s skill with embroidery lifts her up, both personally and economically. If the book is culturally inaccurate it still brings to light the plight of status-less women in many parts of the world, including India, and for that reason I think it is worth reading.
The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang. Lucy is all set to have the best sixth grade ever! But oh no! Her grandmother’s sister from China is now coming to stay with the family. And will be staying in Lucy’s room, no less. PLUS! Her parents are making her go to Chinese school. This is a great book that contains both a lot of humor and emotional depth.
Alvin Ho by Leonore Look (series) I love Alvin Ho and cannot resist encouraging you (yet again) to pick up one of these books for your child. Alvin suffers from anxiety over many things and this leads him to become mute at school. Nevertheless, his family life, antics and tales of how he navigates “scary things” never fail to charm.
Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Leonore Look. There aren’t a lot of children’s books featuring Asian-American heroines, so the ebullient Ruby Lu is a welcome addition to the field. Ruby Lu’s Chinese heritage is an important part of the stories, especially when her cousin, Flying Duck comes to stay. I love the fun little flip book built into the first book as well as Ruby’s unique way of describing the world around her.
Anna Wang series by Andrea Cheng. Bookworm Anna Wang struggles with social drama at school, identifying with her Chinese heritage and embarrassment over her parents. A touching and compassionate story. In the second book, The Year of the Baby, her family adopts a child from China.
- Japanese folktales (picture books)
- Chinese folktales (picture books)
- Folktales from India (picture books)
- Pragmatic Mom has several wonderful book lists featuring books about Asian-Americans
- Learn more about Asian-Pacific Heritage Month.
- 6th grade summer reading for globally conscious kids
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