Last month was Asian Pacific American Heritage Month!
As described by the Library of Congress, this month is a “celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States” (Asian Pacific American Heritage, n.d., para. 1). It is when we celebrate the achievements and contributions, as well as the culture, traditions, and roles Asians and Pacific Islanders have played in shaping our society.
To continue celebrating past the month of May in your libraries and with your patrons, here is a list of books written by Asians and Pacific Islanders, that will take your readers on emotional journeys, fantastical adventures, romantic and hilarious moments, and into edgy and daring worlds. But most of all it will introduce readers to new cultures and diverse characters whom they can relate to.
A few weeks ago, I was lamenting the closing down of one of my favorite restaurants in San Diego. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how choked up it made me feel, but hear me out: This particularly eatery was so important to me because 1) It was the only place nearby that served the authentic South Indian cuisine I grew up eating and, 2) It’s where my husband and I grabbed lunch after our courthouse wedding nine years ago.
For years, my husband and I made the 30-minute drive to Madras Cafe – it would usually be packed with Indian families (many of whom were South Indian like mine). While perusing the menu, I would take comfort in being surrounded by the familiar strains of Tamil or Telugu – the languages spoken by my father and mother, respectively. The walls were also plastered with faded photographs of temples in the southern part of India, and food was served on traditional stainless steel dinnerware.
Because my parents live in Northern California, this place was the closest I could come to my mother’s home cooked meals. More than all of this, this restaurant represented a space where I belonged, and where I was not an outsider. This sense of belonging also applies to my feelings about diversity in literature – I continue to search for books in which I find my personal cultural experiences accurately mirrored. Discovering a story where the characters eat the same food as I do, pepper their English-dialogue with Indian language, and express the frustration of straddling two cultures elicits an internal sigh, like, “Finally! Someone else gets it!”
In the first of this two-part series about Asian Pacific American Month, we featured an interview with Cindy Pon, author of the Chinese-inspired fantasy novels, Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix. In addition to Cindy’s books, here are a few titles from recent YALSA booklists and award winners that you will want to check out this month (or any time of the year!).
Bitter Melon by Cara Chow
Many teens will relate to this realistic story set in 1980s San Francisco about a Chinese-American girl who clashes with her traditional mother when she’s accidentally assigned to take a speech class instead of calculus. Chow skillfully depicts the academic pressure and the expectation of filial piety that will be familiar to Asian-American readers. It’s a multi-layered depiction: just as readers will sympathize with Frances’s need to be independent, they will also gain a glimmer of understanding for her unrelenting mother. (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults selection)
Huntress by Malinda Lo
This lush, beautifully-written fantasy is a prequel to Ash, Lo’s inventive retelling of Cinderella. In this book, two seventeen-year-old girls, Kaede and Taisin, are brought together to journey to the city of the Fairy Queen to try and save their homeland, which is being ravaged by an imbalance of nature caused by a supernatural force. Huntress has a vivid Chinese influence, with elements inspired by the I Ching. As Asian-American females have long suffered under the stereotype of being subservient and demure, readers will appreciate the strength of Lo’s protagonists as they forge into the unknown on a dangerous quest. (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults selection)
So, what does Asian Pacific American Heritage Month have to do with YA literature? Quite a bit: the growth rate of the Asian population in the US means there’s an increasing number of young readers of Asian descent. What are they reading? Are they finding books and characters that reflect their cultural identities?
Happily, I’m seeing an increasing number of titles that feature Asian or Asian-American characters or settingsâ€”but we still have a ways to go. I interviewed author Cindy Pon to get her perspective on the representation of Asian and Asian-American cultures in YA literature.
Cindy is the author of two adventure-filled YA fantasy novels inspired by ancient China: Silver Phoenix, named one of the Top 10 SF/Fantasy for Youth by Booklist in 2009, and its sequel, Fury of the Phoenix. Cindy is also an accomplished Chinese brush painter and is one of the co-founders of Diversity in YA, a website and book tour created to bring awareness to the importance of diverse stories in young adult literature. Learn more about her on her website.
How does the representation of Asian and Asian-American culture in YA literature today compare to the choices on the bookshelves when you were growing up?