Diverse stories for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

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 fiction — featuring realism, folklore, short stories, and historical fiction — for middle-graders and middle-schoolers that offer varied perspectives on Asian identity. Also check out several AAPI titles on our Summer Reading List.

Hamra and the Jungle of Memories
by Hanna Alkaf
Intermediate, Middle School    Harper/HarperCollins    400 pp.
3/23    9780063207950    $19.99
e-book ed.  9780063207974    $10.99

Hamra has just turned thirteen, though no one in her family seems to have noticed. Due to COVID-19, her home country of Malaysia is under quarantine, leaving her mother working long hours in an overrun hospital hours away, her father distracted by his duty to get supplies to those in need, and Hamra at home to care for her grandparents. While her grandfather often annoys her with his many far-fetched stories, her grandmother’s increasing dementia worries and even angers her. Adults are supposed to take care of children, after all. To escape the pressures of caring for elders, Hamra goes to the jungle. When she recklessly takes fruit from the magical jambu tree, a weretiger demands she accompany him on a quest as payment for stealing. If she succeeds, the weretiger will remember his humanity, and her grandmother’s dementia will be cured. Accompanied by her best friend, Ilyas, Hamra embarks on a quest where she must face her fears and find the courage to save her family and herself. A compelling story about family, friendship, and the power of memory, filled with Islamic traditions and Malay folklore. S.R. TOLIVER

by Varsha Bajaj
Middle School    Paulsen/Penguin    192 pp.
7/22    9780593354391    $17.99

Growing up in the slums around Mumbai, India, seventh grader Minni has been raised to follow the rules and stay out of trouble, but she can’t keep quiet when she spots injustice. She dreams of going to college but keeps bumping up against the realities of poverty that make that nearly impossible. The narrative focus is on Mumbai’s unstable, often non-potable water supply and the lack of indoor plumbing in Minni’s neighborhood. When her brother spies the “water mafia” siphoning water illegally, he is sent away for his safety, while their mother goes to the country to recover from a serious illness. This leaves Minni to obtain water and boil it, take on her mother’s job as a maid, and struggle to attend school full time. Her own sleuthing leads to a shocking conclusion about corruption and Mumbai’s water resources. Bajaj’s suspenseful novel peels back the curtain on modern-day class and caste inequities and how they create a cycle of poverty that spirals through generations. Minni’s thirst for what’s right steers the novel toward an optimistic conclusion in which one person can bring about big changes. JULIE HAKIM AZZAM

My Nest of Silence
by Matt Faulkner; illus. by the author
Intermediate, Middle School    Atheneum    384 pp.
10/22    9781534477629    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781534477643    10.99

Like many Japanese Americans, the Asai family has been sent to Manzanar during World War II. Mari has always enjoyed a special bond with her older brother, Mak — he alone seems to appreciate and nurture her gift for ­drawing — but when he decides to enlist in the army, it divides the family. Their father, Ichiro, refuses to speak to Mak, and Mari takes a vow of silence, pledging to remain mute until her brother returns. The story is told from Mari’s first-person perspective, but when letters from Mak arrive, the narrative segues into graphic-novel panels that vividly capture his experiences in the 442nd infantry regiment, the most decorated in U.S. military history. Mak and his comrades exhibit heroism and bravery, even in the face of prejudice. In contrast, Mari chronicles daily life in Manzanar, particularly the community’s response to her silence; the evolving dynamics among her father, mother, and absent brother; and the sense of optimism that permeates the story’s end as Mak is spared the worst violence of the war and the Asai family makes plans for the next chapter in their lives beyond Manzanar. Mari’s reflective internal narrative, coupled with Mak’s action-packed sequences, marks this unique contribution to the growing body of work in children’s literature around Japanese American internment. JONATHAN HUNT

You Are Here: Connecting Flights
edited by Ellen Oh
Intermediate, Middle School    Allida/HarperCollins    272 pp.
3/23    9780063239081    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780063239104    $11.99

In this collection of linked short stories, a nasty storm strikes Chicago’s (fictional) Gateway International Airport, delaying flights and suspending travel plans. Twelve-year-old Paul and his family, who are flying to Thailand to visit family, are stopped by security when his grandfather’s remains, which his grandmother is trying to bring aboard the plane, trigger an alarm; then Paul’s missing little sister causes subsequent delays. In the midst of the chaos, readers meet eleven other Asian American young people throughout the airport who find themselves in situations where they witness and experience (and also stand up to) racism: Mindy, an adoptee from Korea who doesn’t feel ready to visit the country of her biological origin; Ari, who is tired of explaining that she is Jewish and Chinese; Jane, whose Gonggong (grandfather) was attacked for simply being Asian. Oh and the other eleven short-story authors — who include Erin Entrada Kelly, Grace Lin, Linda Sue Park, and Christina Soontornvat — paint a picture of what it means to navigate being Asian American in a post-2020 world, where the burden of being blamed for COVID-19 is thrust on young shoulders. An editor’s note defines the term Asian American and explains the rationale for highlighting East and Southeast Asian American experiences. GABI K. HUESCA

The Secret Battle of Evan Pao
by Wendy Wan-Long Shang
Intermediate, Middle School    Scholastic    272 pp.
6/22    978-1-338-67885-7    $17.99

Shang (co-author of Not Your All-American Girl, rev. 3/21) takes the little-known fact that several Asian American men fought in the Civil War and works it into a contemporary story about bullying, cultural acceptance, and forgiveness. Evan Pao, twelve, is the new kid in (fictional) Haddington, Virginia. His family has relocated from California for a fresh start after his father’s get-rich-quick scheme nearly bankrupts them. Although Evan makes some new friends, he is constantly harassed by a classmate. He also wonders about his place in this small, mostly white, Southern town where many students take pride in their Confederate ancestors. While preparing for “Battlefield Day,” a Civil War re-enactment celebration, Evan excitedly shares information with his class about Chinese Union soldiers. His house is shot at the next day, seemingly in retaliation. In the aftermath of this harrowing event, the characters explore any possibility of reconciliation. The novel’s strongest parts occur when Evan questions why “the whole history” of the Civil War isn’t widely represented: Shang includes short passages on glossing over slavery in the classroom, honoring women who fought in the Civil War, and debating the removal of a Confederate statue. MICHELLE LEE

Finally Seen
by Kelly Yang
Intermediate    Simon    304 pp.
2/23    9781534488335    $17.99
e-book ed.  9781534488359    $10.99

This contemporary immigrant tale follows a Beijing girl as she reunites with her parents and younger sister in California after five years of separation. Lina Gao, ten, thinks that her father is a successful microbiologist who owns a big house. Reality kicks in when the fifth grader discovers that her father is a farm worker, the family lives in a cramped ­apartment, and her mother sells bath bombs online in hopes of covering the back rent. Yang does a skillful job in portraying Lina’s multitude of emotions. There’s the sadness of leaving her grandmother behind in a Chinese nursing home and the isolation and loneliness stemming from language barriers. Issues of racism and class come up when her parents struggle to be paid fairly and to get updates on their green card applications, Lina is teased at school, and a graphic novel with an Asian American protagonist is targeted for censorship. The most poignant scenes occur as Lina slowly removes the “invisible thread” that prevents her from freely expressing herself, especially when ESL teacher Mrs. Ortiz tells her that even though immigrants are “burdened with a lot of guilt,” it is important to remember that “your dreams matter. You matter. Never forget that.” MICHELLE LEE

From the May 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
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