Asian/Pacific American contemporary realism

May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, celebrating people in the United States with ancestral ties to the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Here are six works of realistic fiction for middle-graders and middle-schoolers that grapple with identity in engaging, often entertaining, and relatable ways. Read Lisa Yee Talks with Roger about Maizy Chen’s Last Chance; find more recommendations on and in the Guide/Reviews Database; and see also the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association’s Awards for Literature winners.

Generation Misfits
by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Intermediate, Middle School    Farrar    352 pp.    g
6/21    978-0-374-31374-6    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-374-31373-9    $19.99

Previously homeschooled eleven-year-old Millie Nakakura wants nothing more than to make friends at her new arts school. Her parents, however, think friends are just a distraction from earning a flute scholarship, despite Millie’s distaste for classical music and her apathy for the instrument. After secretly joining an afterschool club for Japanese pop music fans, Millie inadvertently becomes its vice president, as she is the only other member. An opportunity to gain new members arises when the club president decides to form a cover band, but Millie’s failing grades (stemming from her struggles with the transition from homeschool) and tensions among members threaten to break up the band before it has even had a chance to perform. In this fish-out-of-water story, Millie learns about friendships and unspoken rules of student life. Bowman also creates a diverse cast of four distinct supporting characters, all with their own troubles. Told from Millie’s point of view, the story brings readers close to her feelings as she balances appeasing her parents’ wishes and making herself proud as a student and as a friend. KRISTINE TECHAVANICH

Dream, Annie, Dream
by Waka T. Brown
Intermediate, Middle School    Quill Tree/HarperCollins    352 pp.    g
1/22    978-0-06-301716-0    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-301718-4    $8.99

Japanese American Aoi Inoue takes to heart her sixth-grade teacher’s advice (“You can be anything you want to be”) and decides she wants to be called Annie, after years of answering to mangled pronunciations of her name. She also wants to be Annie, as in Little Orphan, and auditions for the part at the local community theater. So does her white best friend. Who gets the part and who actually deserves it spur an evolution in Annie’s awareness of racism in her community. In this ultimately uplifting story set in 1980s Topeka, Kansas, Brown (While I Was Away) describes the painful racism the Inoue family faces and their differing experiences of living in the United States. Annie’s professor dad is continually grateful for the opportunities he’d never find back home in Japan. Her mom, who struggles with English years after their move, is less enthusiastic. Brown conveys the dynamics of their bilingual household in small moments: one evening, Mom speaks to Annie in Japanese, “too tired to even practice her English,” while Annie answers her in English, “too excited to use [her] Japanese”; younger sibling Tak understands almost no Japanese and often asks his sister to translate overheard parental arguments. While Annie’s voice gets a little teacher-y at the end as she wraps up all she’s learned, the newfound friendships and opportunities she earns are a warm and welcome outcome. An author’s note is appended. JENNIFER M. BRABANDER

That Thing About Bollywood
by Supriya Kelkar
Intermediate, Middle School    Simon    352 pp.    g
5/21    978-1-5344-6673-9    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-6675-3    $10.99

Eleven-year-old Indian American Sonali keeps her emotions to herself. She maintains a stoic demeanor in order to protect her younger brother from her parents’ constant arguments, and she attempts to unite the family with weekly Bollywood movie nights. When her parents announce a trial separation and her best friend grows closer to the popular girl at their Los Angeles middle school, Sonali’s feelings bubble to the surface and break out as “Bollywooditis.” In this alternate reality, her entire life is a Bollywood movie, and as such her emotions are on full display in disruptive musical solos she can’t help singing at inopportune moments. A horrified Sonali attempts to tamp down her personal soundtrack, garish makeovers, and coordinated background dancers, to no avail. It is only when she faces up to the reality of her parents’ divorce and communicates her pent-up feelings that the “filmi magic” fades. Kelkar creates sympathetic characters burdened by family secrets, cultural expectations, and bottled-up emotions. She deftly draws out the impact divorce can have on friendships, schoolwork, and a child’s inner life. The heaviness of these themes is lightened by Bollywood touches, which also explore the seesaw effect of both loving and cringing at one’s culture. SADAF SIDDIQUE

Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone
by Tae Keller
Intermediate, Middle School    Random    288 pp.    g
4/22    978-0-593-31052-6    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-31053-3    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-31054-0    $10.99

Twelve-year-old narrator Mallory is distressed to learn that her neighbor and sometime-friend Jennifer Chan has disappeared. Having recently moved to town (deemed “Nowhereville” Florida by Mallory), Jennifer — who is Chinese American; lives with a young, single mother; and wholeheartedly believes in aliens — doesn’t fit in at snobby, homogenous Gibbons Academy. Socially insecure Mallory (whose own mom is “half Korean”) and her two mean-girl besties had bullied Jennifer. Alternating between “Now” and “Then,” and with heavy foreshadowing of something known as “the Incident,” Mallory slowly, guiltily, reveals what happened, and how she’s determined to make things right. Occasional interspersed journal entries from “Jennifer Chan’s Guide to the Universe” provide the missing girl’s thoughts on family, friendship, and the inevitability of extraterrestrial existence, plus how to make contact; the story’s climax leaves room for interpretation regarding her success. Keller (Newbery Medalist for When You Trap a Tiger) writes with uncommon compassion for all of her characters — even the cruel-seeming ones — ­addressing such issues as peer pressure, individuality, identity, and microaggressions from a variety of perspectives. A heartfelt and hopeful appended note provides further details about the author’s motivation and methodology. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

The Many Meanings of Meilan
by Andrea Wang
Middle School    Kokila/Penguin    368 pp.    g
8/21    978-0-593-11128-4    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-11129-1    $10.99

How do you define yourself when your name tells many stories about your identity? Seventh grader Meilan’s name in Chinese can have many connotations. As “Basket” in her family, she feels the weight of responsibility: “I’m the carrier of their dreams and hopes and desires.” When the Hua family’s ties are severed after the passing of Meilan’s grandmother, the family’s bakery is sold and she and her parents and grandfather make a sudden move from Boston’s Chinatown to small-town Redbud, Ohio. A gifted storyteller who weaves lively tales inspired by Chinese folklore, Meilan finds her vibrant inner world dissipating. She is re-named Melanie by her principal in a misguided attempt to ease her transition into the new school; and when an assignment compels her to investigate her grandfather’s experiences as a veteran of the Vietnam War, his presence at school is met with anti-Asian bias. Through unearthing his story, however, Meilan discovers the specific origins of her name — and, satisfyingly, the strength to proudly stand her ground. Wang (Watercress, rev. 3/21) presents an earnest portrayal of an Asian American daughter in an immigrant family finding her voice in predominantly white, small-town America. Taiwanese cultural heritage plays a strong role in Meilan’s world through her mother’s colloquialisms, her father’s Chinese pastries, and the mythical Chinese creatures she imagines into her new environment. Back matter includes a note about transliteration, “Māma’s Meanings,” and further reading. KRISTINE TECHAVANICH

New from Here
by Kelly Yang
Intermediate    Simon    368 pp.    g
3/22    978-1-5344-8830-4    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-8832-8    $10.99

Yang’s (Front Desk, rev. 7/18; Three Keys, rev. 11/20) pandemic-set tale, based partly on her own experiences, focuses on a biracial Chinese American expat family in January 2020. Impulsive middle-child Knox Wei-Evans, ten, is filled with dread when he, his siblings, and their high-powered banker mother relocate to the Bay Area while his best friend — his father — stays in Hong Kong. Drama ensues as the kids struggle to fit in at school, Knox is diagnosed with ADHD, and the family’s finances become precarious when Mom loses her job. The Wei-Evanses also experience several instances of racism, such as bullying in the form of “coronavirus tag” and accusations of being “virus carriers.” Yang presents these incidents in a realistic way and defuses them by emphasizing the importance of educating others and speaking up. Despite the serious subject matter, Yang includes plenty of humor, with wry observations about Zoom schooling and the kids’ efforts to “help out” with a garage sale and LinkedIn job hunt. Knox’s experience with ADHD is portrayed with nuance and empathy. Some quibbles aside (the plot can feel a bit forced, and Yang largely skirts the mainland China–Hong Kong political conflict), this is a strong and timely novel about a family weathering adversity. An author’s note is appended. MICHELLE LEE

From the May 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.