As a child, I loved to read. It was my escape. My elementary school in Rossmore, California had a huge library the size of a gymnasium, and we had not one, but two full-time librarians. In fourth grade, I decided to read the entire library. I started with the four bookcases of biographies and then worked my way through the novels. It took me more than two years to read them all.
Yet, despite reading hundreds if not thousands of books, I never once saw myself reflected in a book. Nor on the big screen. On the small screen, there was a Calgon commercial of an Asian couple who were doing laundry, and a short-lived television show featuring an Asian American family. That was it. It made me feel like I was on the outside looking in.
My kids are all grown up now. My oldest is 23 years old. When they were younger, I was excited to see that there were children's books that featured Asian American characters. I read them all with my children. I started a blog and wrote about them. I started a nonprofit to promote these wonderful diverse children's books that would have meant so much to elementary school me.
And yet, despite this progress, the number of diverse children's books published in the past fifteen or so years hasn't kept up to reflect the ethnic diversity of the United States. It's not enough just to have a few authors and illustrators of a certain culture telling stories. We need more. We need them in all book genres and ages. We need the stories to reflect the joy, the sad, the every day, and the cultural history of each and every reader who comes to a book hoping to see themselves reflected back.
I've been making book lists to help readers find what they are looking for. Because my kids are half Korean, and a quarter Japanese and Chinese American, I started making book lists for them. I made a Filipino book list when I realized how few books existed.
Many teachers had Hmong, Lao, and Vietnamese students in class, so I searched for books. I didn't know a lot about South Asia so I learned about countries there including Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. That led me to make more lists on Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Taiwan, Mongolia, Singapore, Hawaii, and Tibet.
Holidays were also important. I wanted people to stop using Tiki Tiki Tembo if they needed a book for Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year. I also loved learning about holidays that weren't familiar to me like Holi, Ramadan, Raksha Bandhan, Kite Flying, and Durja Puga.
And while it's important to learn about the history and culture of each ethnicity and country, stories should be more than immigration struggles, racism, and being othered, it's also important to celebrate joy -- where characters can be Asian but that's not the point. And to find role models from people in history who weren't in our history books at school.
I also made startling discoveries! Did you know that the very first Cinderella story originated in China?! There are heavier topics including genocide, Japanese American WWII internment, and The Chinese Exclusion Act. And also, lighter takes. I laughed at these clever twists on fairy tales with these fractured fairy tale picture books with an Asian American twist.
Meeting Asian/Pacific Islander Authors and Illustrators
It's also important for kids to meet Asian/Pacific Islander children's book authors and illustrators. I host a free and virtual Multicultural Children's Book Club on the first Thursday of the month at 7 pm EST. Here are videos of some of the book events with Asian American KidLit creators:
- Joanna Ho: Celebrating Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month by featuring New York Times Best Seller, Eyes that Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho, illustrated by Dung Ho.
- Aram Kim: For July, we celebrated the Olympics by featuring Let's Go to TaeKwon!
- Rajani LaRocca: For August we are celebrating Raksha Bandhan and featuring Bracelets for Bina's Brothers! by Rajani LaRocca.
- Andrea Wang: For January we are celebrating Multicultural Children's Book Day and Chinese New Year featuring Watercress by Andrea Wang.
For additional resources and booklists, see our Asian Pacific American Heritage resource collection.
We also interview KidLIt creators at Multicultural Children's Book Day on Instagram every Wednesday at 3:00 pm EST. Here are videos of the Asian American authors and illustrators that we talked to:
- Meera Sriram
- Maria Wen Adcock
- Amanda Hsiung-Blodgett, Miss Panda Chinese
- Ajanta Chakraborty
- Payal Doshi
- Meg Eden with Brian Tashima for #MCBDAutismAcceptance
- Saadia Faruqi
- Rajani LaRocca
- Yoshito Darmon-Shimamori
- Meera Sriram
- Padma Venkatraman
Despite finding a wide range of Asian/Pacific Islander Americans in children's books, there are still not enough. There are still important stories that need to be told.
If you don't find what you need, please feel free to contact me at [email protected] and I'll try to help you out. Often, this is a source of inspiration for me to make a new book list. Thank you for this opportunity to share my favorite resources for Asian American children's books. "Elementary school me" is so excited to share these books with you!
About the Author
Mia Wenjen blogs at PragmaticMom.com. She is the co-creator and President of Multicultural Children's Book Day. Her debut picture book, Sumo Joe (Lee and Low, 2019) was selected as a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year. Food for the Future: Sustainable Farms Around the World releases spring of 2023 through Barefoot Books and is a Junior Library Guild selection. Changing the Game: Asian Pacific American Female Athletes will be available through Scholastic in June of 2023. Postcards from Malcolm X (Red Comet Press) and Boxer Baby (Eifrig Publishing) releases in 2024. Follow her @pragmaticmom on social media.