May is the month set apart to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) heritage
and today I’ve got some superb titles to help you do just that.
I’ve also got a first wash of summer-y stories as the temps start to ramp up,
and a few fiction suggestions for tween readers and up.
All in the hopes that you and yours can grab something new and enjoy the riches of a good story.
I Am an American: The Wong Kim Ark Story
written by Martha Brockenbrough with Grace Lin, illustrated by Julia Kuo
published in 2021 by Little, Brown and Company
Born in San Francisco to Chinese-immigrant parents in 1873, Wong Kim Ark experienced the pain of anti-Asian racism beginning in his childhood. As a young man, Kim Ark went to visit his parents who had by then resettled in China. Upon his return to California, he was barred from entry, imprisoned on a ship, and held for more than 4 months as officials refused to recognize his American status.
When he was finally released, Wong Kim Ark’s case made its way to the Supreme Court. At stake was whether a person born in the United States was a citizen…or if citizenship should depend on the ancestry, language, and customs of one’s parents. In 1898, the court ruled in favor of Kim Ark and all those future, first-generation American children born in the U.S. or its territories. (That includes my dad, who was the child of immigrant parents.)
This pivotal case and its meaning for us today is presented clearly and meaningfully in this brief account. Back matter tells more about Won Kim Ark’s difficult story, as well as the 14th Amendment, and the arguments within the Court over this matter. In the current atmosphere of ugly, anti-Asian racism and violence, it’s an excellent and important story to know. Ages 6 and up.
Snow Angel Sand Angel, written by Lois-Ann Yamanaka, illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky
published in 2022 by Make Me a World
Vigorous, vibrant, tropical-colored illustration work grabs the spotlight on every page of this fascinating story coming to us from Hawaii.
Although Hawaii sounds like paradise to those of us who’ve never been there, for Claire, a Hawaiian child, it’s simply too familiar and lacks the one thing she dreams of — a thick blanket of fresh, powdery snow. Explore Hawaii with Claire and her family as she learns to appreciate the unique beauties of her island home, and smile as she makes some clever adaptations to play those “snow” games she longs for.
An exceptional story illuminating the people and culture of Hawaii, for ages 4 and up.
Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in Thirteen Bites
written by Jamie Michalak and Debbi Michiko Florence, illustrated by Yuko Jones
published in 2021 by Farrar Straus Giroux
Niki Nakayama, Michelin-star chef, was born in L.A. to Japanese parents. This colorful story narrates her journey from a child fascinated by cookery, to a student of the unique Japanese cuisine called kaiseki, to the start of her own sushi restaurant, and finally to the Asian-Californian fusion kaiseki she invented and for which she has become famous.
Carried along on a wave of lovely, elegant illustrations, this is a delectable story of persistence and fierce determination, as well as a brilliant introduction to Japanese cuisine with an American twist.
Includes a recipe for wonton pizza. Ages 5 and up.
The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh, written by Supriya Kelkar, illustrated by Alea Marley
published in 2019 by Sterling Children’s Books
I love this book as it ushers children into the world of Sikhism, a faith and culture rarely covered in children’s literature.
Meet young Harpreet Singh. Discover what the various colors of his patkas, or turbans, mean to him, and how he chooses different colors for his different moods. Watch, too, the healing power of kindness when he meets a new friend in his new hometown.
An afterword further explains both Sikhism and the significance of turbans to their religion. A sweet story for ages 3 and up.
A Different Pond, written by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui
published in 2017 by Capstone Young Readers
This Caldecott-Honor book holds a special place in the hearts of those of us from the Twin Cities as it is set with homely familiarity in Minneapolis, 1982. Bao Phi narrates the tender, authentic story of a young Vietnamese-American child and his father as they head out for some early morning fishing.
Fishing is at once a quintessential piece of Minnesota life, and an anchoring piece of Vietnamese culture. In quiet, poignant prose, we listen in to their conversation and learn something of their newcomer experience. We recognize the gulf that exists between the father’s childhood home and this new life, and witness the affectionate circle that centers them both.
It’s a gem of a book for ages 4 and up.
Where Three Oceans Meet, written by Rajani Larocca, illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan
published in 2021 by Abrams Books for Young Readers
One of the common themes in children’s books about life as Asian Americans is the experience of being separated from grandparents who remain in their homeland, and the sweetness and challenges of spending time together.
This story follows that arc as a young girl and her mother travel with her Pati, or grandmother, one summer in India.
This delightful trio and their fascinating, happy, hot journey, provide marvelous glimpses of India, the differences between these three generations, and above all the ties of family and love that bind them together. Lively and lovely, for ages 4 and up.
You can find dozens more excellent books opening up the Asian-American experience as well as titles set in diverse Asian cultures on my list here.
Books celebrating places and people in Oceania are on my list here.
Both of these lists include novels, picture books, and nonfiction.
It Began With Lemonade, written by Gideon Sterer, illustrated by Lian Cho
published in 2021 by Dial Books for Young Readers
Drink in this juicy, effervescent tale of one little gal’s bustling lemonade stand as she serves up refreshing slurps to a throng of unlikely and colorful customers!
Exuberant fun from first sip to last drop! Ages 3 and up.
Sunrise Summer, by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr
published in 2020 by Imprint
Based on the childhood experiences of the author, this is the story of a family who work as commercial salmon fishers in the remote setting of Coffee Point, Alaska. Vivid illustration work and a text packed with splendid, authentic detail reveal a fascinating way of life most of us will never experience.
Ride along as one girl and her family make the long trek to their summer cottage on the tundra, rise oh-so-early, and work incredibly hard all day long. She wouldn’t want it any other way.
Four additional pages give lots more factual details about sustainable salmon fishing practices and the Indigenous communities who have traditionally lived and fished in these areas. I thoroughly enjoyed this unusual story! Ages 4 and up.
Fish for Supper, written and illustrated by M.B. Goffstein
first published in 1976 by Dial Press
republished by New York Review Books in 2021
Speaking of fish, here’s another a-luring story:) I love Minnesotan M.B. Goffstein’s quirky, lumpy characters sketched out in her minimalist drawings that somehow capture so much humanity. Her pared back texts always brilliantly provide ample space for a child’s fertile imagination to enter the story. Truly, she was a gifted author/illustrator.
This book won a Caldecott when it was published and — hooray! — it’s been reissued by New York Review Books so lots more of you will be able to access it.
It’s simply the story of a sturdy, no-fuss grandmother who goes out on the lake to catch her fish for supper. Every day. A tiny slice of life for tiny people ages 2 and up.
Blueberry Cake, written and illustrated by Sarah Dillard
published in 2021 by Aladdin
Little Bear wants blueberry cake so his mama sends him out with a pail to pick those purple beauties. But Little Bear gets mighty distracted by other things and finally trundles back home without the goods. No blueberries — no blueberry cake, says Mama. A sad state of affairs.
Not to worry, though, because Little Bear pops out at break of dawn and gathers a brimming pailful. Get set for berry picking season — this book even comes with a recipe to make your own blueberry cake! Yummy for ages 2 and up.
Home Lovely, written and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins
published in 1995 by Greenwillow Books
I went on a Lynne Rae Perkins re-reading jaunt (see my fiction notes below) and rediscovered this very-90s gem. I love it for its kindness and realness, both features of Perkins’ body of work that I deeply appreciate.
This is the story of Tiffany and her mom who have moved, out of necessity, into an old trailer home in the middle of nowhere. Tiffany is young, but has to mind herself at home while her mom works afternoons. One day she spots some seedlings by the trash can and has the brilliant idea of planting them beside the driveway, thinking they are trees or flowers and will look super in their front yard. The mailman comes along and identifies them as vegetables. Not trees. Not flowers.
But that extraordinarily kind man helps transform Tiffany’s world into a place of beauty, nevertheless. A wonderful read, the story provides a window onto economically-challenged families and does so with dignity and warmth. Ages 4 and up.
All Star: How Larry Doby Smashed the Color Barrier in Baseball
written by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Cannaday Chapman
published in 2022 by Clarion Books
We’re all familiar with the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball. But far less well known is Larry Doby’s role as the the first Black player in the American League, which happened just 11 weeks later.
Doby went on to rack up a number of other firsts, was named to the All Star team seven years in a row, and was the second Black man to manage a Major League ball club. This inspiring, handsome account is a winner for all you baseball fans ages 6 and up.
Wild, written and illustrated by Sam Usher
first US edition published in 2021 by Templar Books
Following his tried and true recipe, Sam Usher leads us on another energetic, highly-imaginative romp with one little boy and his grandpa.
This time around they’re taking care of a cat who, like all cats, has a mind of its own.
Wild, pandemonious shenanigans are the result. A merry outing for ages 2 and up.
My Mother’s Delightful Deaths
written and illustrated by Carla Haslbauer, translated by David Henry Wilson
originally published in Switzerland; English edition 2021 by NorthSouth Books
This book has nothing to do with summer but I have to include it anyway as it is so original and delightful.
The scandalous title refers to this little girl’s mother’s career as an opera singer. Having a mother who plays such an extreme range of characters, who practices spine-tingling music in the bathtub, and who loves to die dramatically onstage is a peculiar way to grow up!
Find out what it’s like in this funny, fabulous story for ages 4-ish and up.
I’m hoping to gather another wave of summery picture books to bring you in a couple of months. Meanwhile, you can find oodles of favorites of all sorts on my Summer list or my All Things Beach-y list.
Sunny Makes a Splash, by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
published in 2021 by Graphix
I’ve loved all the Sunny graphic novels and happily zipped my way through this latest entry.
It’s summer vacation. Sunny, who’s turning 12 this summer, is bored out of her mind because all her friends have jaunted off elsewhere.
Salvation comes via a job at the local pool’s snack shop where she dishes up gazillions of hot dogs, makes surprising new friends, discovers that maybe she isn’t as hopelessly awkward as she assumed, and faces her fears of the high board. All delivered with Sunny’s typical low-key, 70s-cool, endearing aplomb.
You could read this one without the background of the other books in the series, or begin at the beginning with Sunny Side Up in order to meet Sunny and her grandpa properly. A fast, happy read for ages 10 and up.
City Spies: Forbidden City, by James Ponti
published in 2022 by Aladdin
The third episode in the City Spies series is out and it’s just as much of a lark as the others. In this installment, international chess tournaments, a teenage social media diva, and a plot to kidnap a North Korean nuclear scientist keep the team of young teens working for MI6 hopping.
If you know readers who love adventurous, fast-moving capers, this series is for them — or for you! Cinematic pacing, snappy dialogue, and tons of action make these books compulsive reads. You’ve got to start the series at the beginning, which is reviewed here, and read them in order. Ages 11 and up.
Will anyone ever option these for film or television?
I would not be surprised.
Lynne Rae Perkins
I went on a Lynne Rae Perkins re-reading kick recently. It started because I was in the mood to read something I knew I would fall into, and love, and feel comforted by. I remembered loving her Newbery-winning novel Criss Cross (2005; 337 pages), so I started there. Then I re-read As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth (2010; 368 pages), and All Alone in the Universe (2007; 224 pages).
Perkins writes with a relaxed grace. Her prose feels as easy-going and comfortable as your favorite old sweater, as confidential as a chat with a close friend. There are copious flashes of dry humor while the ordinariness of life receives center stage and an affectionate, understanding gaze. With plots centered on character-development, leisurely pacing, and lots of internal dialogue, her trio of coming-of-age stories are just my cup of tea. I don’t review many books from the coming-of-age genre,
but thought I’d throw these out to see if any of you gravitate towards them.
They’re sort of the polar opposite of the City Spies books.
One aspect I love about Perkins is how honest she is about our human condition, the beauty and wartiness of life. There are no superheroes in her novels, no child protégés, no miraculous transitions from ugly duckling to swan; likewise there are no utterly bad characters; there is no mean-girl squad. Instead there are a gamut of awkward, flawed, thoughtful, predominantly-kind, hopeful young people groping their way towards greater understanding, belonging, capability, and maturity. It is easy to see oneself in her stories, and to feel seen and known, at least if you’re an Average Jo/Joe. She allows for marvelous individuality and a sort of stammering, imperfect growth in the ways we see and experience life and interact with others and with the natural world. Additionally, setting two of these novels circa 1970 allows her to keep a great deal of technology removed from the characters’ lives, and she cleverly limits the role of technology in the third, pushing her teens into face-to-face conversations and interactions with their communities. There is also a great deal of freedom of range for each of these kids, à la 1970s less-restrictive life.
Perkins employs multiple voices and perspectives in both Criss Cross and Falling Off the Earth giving them a sort of prismatic effect. We see the central reality from multiple points of view. Perkins was a visual artist first, and that ability to explore a multiplicity of views seems to fit with that. She also continues to use her own illustration work to uniquely enhance her texts. Occasional panels of wordless pictures even tell part of the story in one of the novels. I thoroughly enjoy her out-of-the-box approach to storytelling.
While the plots don’t really lend themselves to short, neat summaries, each is a coming-of-age story. Criss Cross explores the gossamer quality of connections and missed connections in a variety of relationships; As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth again pursues the theme of human connections but in an extraordinary, wildly picaresque adventure that somehow manages to hang onto plausibility; and All Alone in the Universe focuses on the pain of failed relationships and the promise of new friendships waiting to be discovered. None of them does this in a straight line, point A to point B, fashion. All of them feature protagonists I truly love.
The intended audience for these three novels is teens. Expect to find characters smoking and drinking, navigating painful relationships, and wobbling into a soupçon of romance…but it is all quite ordinary and low-key. My girls enjoyed these books in their teen years, and I do as an adult. I think All Alone in the Universe gravitates to a more female audience; Criss Cross is probably also enjoyed more by female readers though there are a number of wonderful male main characters; As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth has a male protagonist and perhaps serves a wider audience. For readers ages 14 and up who enjoy thoughtful, unusual, character-driven reads, these books are hidden gems. (Just ignore the cover images. Not so great, these.)
That’s it for this month.
Hope you find something grand and new to read.
I’m quite busy working on my yard restoration project these days,
(I’ll post an update on that sometime soon)
but I do hope to be back in June with another bundle of juicy reads for you and yours.
Don’t want to miss a post? Subscribe to my blog — it’s free! — by clicking on the three little lines at the top left of the page.