AAPI stories and voices

The following six YA titles center Asian American and Pacific Islander stories and voices, both in fiction and nonfiction — especially vital in a climate of rising violence. May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and we’ll be posting more links and booklists throughout the month. See also this year’s APALA winners and follow @ala_apala.

by Mike Curato; illus. by the author
Middle School, High School    Godwin/Holt    368 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-62779-641-5    $25.99
Paper ed.  978-1-250-75614-5    $17.99

Aiden is not looking forward to starting public high school in the fall; his Catholic schooling heretofore has had its challenges — “jerks” — but at least it had become familiar. A summer at Boy Scout camp provides a break from his squabbling parents and a chance to breathe (“Everything is so quiet” in the woods) before school starts. Not so fast: camp also has bullies, whose taunts referencing Aiden’s presumed sexual orientation are only exacerbated by Aiden’s growing love for another camper, the athletic and sweet-natured Elias. Grownup LGBTs will know exactly what Aiden is going through, but this book speaks so well to those kids currently undergoing the ordeal. The graphic novel takes its time to fully pull readers into Aiden’s psyche and his setting, which provides the pleasures of summer and friendship and nature along with the rewards of Scout activities. (Orienteering!) The drawing is expertly cartooned, and the palette is black and white with occasional, and then increasing, daubs and splashes of red whenever passions — of many kinds — ride high. The variation of small, storytelling panels and full-page and double-page spreads for big moments is wonderfully effective, and the climax — Aiden in a literal dark night of the soul in the outdoor chapel — is high drama indeed, emotionally powerful, proudly and extravagantly spiritual (and as Catholic as any Graham Greene epiphany). He comes through it to have one perfect day at camp to sustain him going forward. If you will forgive the editorial intrusion, I wish I had had this book fifty years ago. ROGER SUTTON

My Heart Underwater
by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
High School    Quill Tree/HarperCollins    320 pp.    g
10/20    978-0-06-297228-6    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-297230-9    $9.99

After seventeen-year-old Cory’s mother witnesses a kiss between her and her long-term substitute teacher, twenty-five-year-old Ms. Holden, she sends Cory to spend two months in Quezon City in the Philippines with her half-brother, a brooding engineering student and amateur musician. Cory — also dealing with the fact that her father back in California is in a coma — must navigate Kuya Jun’s stiff presence, meet her cruel and unforgiving grandfather, and maintain balance between two worlds as a FilAm, a Filipina American. But amid the unfamiliar customs, Taglish vocabulary, and rhythm of a new city, Cory finds acceptance in the most unexpected places. As Kuya Jun says, “Love is weird. But it’ll find you again. The right kind, next time. Let it be. Give it time.” His comforting words turn out to apply to many complicated relationships in Cory’s life, including a new romantic interest. Fantauzzo’s emotional story extends beyond Cory’s search for identity and belonging, adding insights about both historical and metaphorical colonization, while readers are immersed in the uncertainty that surrounds new and ongoing family crises, resentment, and forgiveness. GABI K. HUESCA

Meltdown: Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Disaster in Fukushima
by Deirdre Langeland
Middle School, High School    Roaring Brook    208 pp.    g
2/21    978-1-62672-700-7    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-1-62672-699-4    $10.99

In time for the tenth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster (March 2011), Langeland chronicles the largest nuclear disaster of the twenty-first century. This comprehensive look at the causes and consequences of the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant captures the tension and fear that gripped the world. Eyewitness accounts from survivors woven throughout the expertly narrated text reveal the horror and devastation of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami as well as the resulting nuclear reactor meltdowns. Clear explanations of both the science behind the seismic events that precipitated the disaster and the ­technology that was meant to contain it provide a full picture of the events and heroic feats that prevented an even greater catastrophe. Langeland leaves room for these scientific expository asides without ever hampering the narrative momentum. A chapter discussing the long-term consequences of the disaster as well as the ongoing efforts to revitalize the surrounding towns and cities is appreciated. Color photographs, maps, and diagrams throughout, as well as substantial back matter including a detailed timeline, glossary of scientific terms, a well-organized bibliography, and extensive quotation sourcing, round out this impressive and compelling work of nonfiction. ERIC CARPENTER

Last Night at the Telegraph Club
by Malinda Lo
High School    Dutton    416 pp.    g
1/21    978-0-525-55525-4    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-525-55526-1    $10.99

High school senior Lily Hu lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1954 with her medical professional parents; she behaves obediently and dreams of working at the Jet Propulsion Lab like her aunt Judy. But she hides a secret yearning. After seeing an ad featuring “Tommy Andrews Male Impersonator,” she sneaks out to the performance at the lesbian Telegraph Club with Kath, a white classmate who shares Lily’s longing. Soon the two are club regulars, even though Lily’s parents have warned her they are being watched (after her father’s citizenship papers were confiscated by the FBI) and could be deported. When an incident at the Telegraph threatens to uncover Lily’s lesbian identity to her family, she is forced to make a difficult choice. This standout work of historical fiction combines meticulous research with tender romance to create a riveting bildungsroman. San Francisco, “with its steep stairways and sudden glimpses of the bay between tall, narrow buildings,” is almost a character itself. Interspersed flashbacks that detail the personal histories of Lily’s parents and Aunt Judy and timelines of world events further put the 1950s Chinese American experience into context for readers. Lo’s (Ash, rev. 11/09; A Line in the Dark, rev. 11/17) comprehensive author’s note includes an absorbing section on “Lesbians, Gender, and Community” and a select bibliography of print and film resources. JENNIFER HUBERT SWAN

From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement
by Paula Yoo
High School    Norton    384 pp.    g
4/21    978-1-324-00287-1    $19.95
e-book ed.  978-1-324-00288-8    $17.48

Who was Vincent Chin? The brutal 1982 killing of the young Chinese American in Detroit by two white men occurred during the U.S.-Japan auto trade wars, a time when anti-Asian hate ran high. Outrage over the killers’ sentencing — a $3,000 fine and probation — mobilized Asian Americans into protesting. The subsequent 1984 federal civil rights trial sparked reforms in victims’ rights and hate-crime reporting. In this extensively researched account — based on news articles (many reproduced here), court records, documentary films, and her own interviews — Yoo skillfully retells the life story of Vincent Chin, an engineering draftsman who was about to get married; his mother, Lily Chin; and everyone else involved, including the killers, witnesses, police, attorneys, judges, family friends, and community members. Yoo reconstructs the night of June 19th when Chin and his friends went to a strip club for his bachelor party and got into a fight with autoworker Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, ending with Chin’s fatal beating outside a McDonald’s restaurant. The narrative follows the aftermath, from the federal trial up to the present day, with updates on the lives of Ebens and others. An afterword observes how anti-Asian discrimination and violence in America continue today with COVID-19–related attacks and racial profiling, but Yoo reminds readers of Chin’s legacy “to fight back against hate.” Back matter includes a detailed timeline, meticulous source notes, and an index (unseen). MICHELLE LEE

Super Fake Love Song
by David Yoon
High School    Putnam    368 pp.    g
11/20    978-1-98481-223-0    $18.99

Sunny Dae and his friends are the “nerd caste” (and also “42.85714286 percent of the entire nonwhite population”) at their suburban Los Angeles high school. They are, after all, the hosts of a web series about building props for LARP events (live action role playing, for the uninitiated). But when he meets cool new girl Cirrus, Sunny hides his passions for crafting and role-playing games and pretends he’s the front man of a band called the Immortals, using his older brother Gray’s equipment and wearing his clothes. The lie escalates quickly: soon, both Cirrus and Sunny are smitten with “Rock Star Sunny,” and the Immortals are preparing to perform in their school’s talent show. Sunny’s narration, full of inventive metaphors, is distinctly, gloriously nerdy. For example, when he hears that Gray quit his band for financial reasons: “It killed me that people had to cancel their dreams for endless toil, unless of course we somehow managed to pull ourselves out of these late-stage capitalist dark ages and into a Star Trek (TNG) future blessed with a universal basic income and sweet jumpsuits.” Despite Sunny’s self-professed cynicism, the novel is a joyful one: a bully easily becomes a friend; three geeky friends turn out to also be decent musicians; and ultimately Sunny, just as he is, gets the girl. For nerds — and those who love them — this is a fitting tribute. RACHEL L. SMITH

From the April 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
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