May is Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! Asia and the Pacific Island are both huge areas, encompassing thousands of languages and cultures. Asia is the most populated continent, with around 50 countries (the number changes, depending on who you ask). I’ve also included a couple books from Hawaiian and Maori culture, as well as a memoir of a Syrian refugee family. This is where the “depends on who you ask” kicks in, since I consider the Middle East to be geographically in Asia, though not everyone does. I can’t cover all the aspects of Asian and Pacific Islander literature, but some key writers and illustrators to check out are Linda Sue Park, Grace Lin, Lauren Yep, Naomi Shihab Nye, Minh Le, Dan Santat, Uma Krishnaswami, Bao Phi, Erin Entrada Kelly, Justina Chen, Witi Ihimera, Kiana Davenport, and Kelly Yang.
Welcome to the New World by Jake Halpern and Michael Sloan
This graphic novel tells the true story of a Syrian refugee family coming to the United States. Ibrahim Aldabaan, his wife, Adeebah, and their three children fled from war-torn Syria to Jordan. There, they make the hard decision to start a new life in the United States, even if it means leaving siblings and Ibrahim’s mother behind. The family arrives in the U.S. on November 8, 2016 – the day of Donald Trump’s election. His Muslim ban means that the family may never reunite again. Ibrahim and Adeebah have only four months to become self-sufficient, an already difficult task made even harder by a lack of English and Islamophobia. Meanwhile, their children must contend with learning new social customs, bullies, and not fitting in at their school.
The Fishermen and the Dragon: Fear, Greed, and a Fight for Justice on the Gulf Coast by Kirk Wallace Johnson
Fishermen in 1970s in Galveston Bay were struggling. Droughts, oil spills, and petrochemical plants legally dumping chemical waste into the water were damaging the fishing industry, but White fishermen pinned the blame on Vietnamese refugees who’d broken into the shrimping industry. Racial tensions in the small town of Seadrift reached a breaking point when a Vietnamese fisherman killed a White man in self-defense. In retaliation, the White fishermen burned Vietnamese boats and homes, eventually calling on the Ku Klux Klan to drive the Vietnamese out of the bay. Colonel Nam, the de facto leader of the Vietnamese community in the bay, urged the Vietnamese community to stand their ground and place their faith in the Constitution, ensuring their freedoms. Amongst all the tension, one woman could see the harm that petrochemical plants were doing to the waters and people she loved, and became an renowned environmental activist, going to great lengths to ensure her demands were heard. This is a non-fiction book that reads like a novel, thoroughly researched and suspenseful that it’s hard to put down.
Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by Pamela S. Turner
In twelfth-century Japan, Yoshitsune’s father went to war with the Taira, a rival samurai family. His father was defeated and killed, his mother was captured, and his only surviving brother was exiled from Kyoto. Only a baby at the time, Yoshitsune was fortunate to survive, spending his early years in a Buddhist temple. He ran away from the temple to train as a samurai, determined to reclaim his family’s honor and glory. Yoshitsune’s story may have ended centuries ago, but his feats of heroism have rendered him immortal. This is a bloody and action packed biography, as deliciously readable as any novel. Who says history has to be boring?
Kapaemahu by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer, and Joe Wilson. Illustrated by Daniel Sousa.
Kapaemahu is a picture book that depicts the Hawaiian mo’olelo – or traditional story – of the ancient healers who came to Waikiki. The four healers were mahu, people who were neither male nor female, but a mixture of both in mind, spirit, and heart. The mahu taught the Hawaiian people healing arts, and the Hawaiians created a monument of four massive stones to honor them. Over time, changes to Hawaii’s cultural and physical landscape, the sacred stones were lost. Though they have been recovered now, their true story still needs to be told. This is a bilingual book, written in both the Hawaiian dialect ‘Olelo Ni’ihau, and English. The illustrations are done in a gorgeous palette that evokes sunset, and hope for the future.
From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement by Paula Yoo
In 1982, the American auto industry was in decline, and anti-Asian sentiment was on the rise. Many American auto workers blamed falling car sales and mass layoffs on imported Japanese cars. In Detroit, the heart of the American auto industry, Chinese-American Vincent Chin was brutally murdered almost a week before his wedding. There was no doubt about who his killers were: Chrysler plant supervisor Ronald Ebens, and his adult stepson Michael Nitz. They plea bargained their charge from second degree murder to manslaughter, and were given a $3,000 fine and three years probation. Incensed at the lenient sentencing, the Asian-American community rallied to seek justice for Vincent Chin and his family. The U.S. had never seen Asian-American activism on this scale before. Hate crimes had not yet been codified into U.S. law, and eventually Ebens and Nitz would be tried again for violating Vincent Chin’s civil rights. United States vs. Ebens would be the first federal civil rights case regarding a crime committed against an Asian American. Exhaustively researched, From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry gives an objective view of the events and people involved in this tragedy. It’s both hard to read and impossible to put down. An afterword (written in 2021) discusses the link between COVID-19 and anti-Asian sentiment, a sobering reminder of why Vincent Chin must never be forgotten.
The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf
Malaysian Melati has a djinn who shows her visions of her mother’s gruesome death on repeat. She has developed complex counting and tapping rituals to appease the djinn and keep her mother safe. She doesn’t know that her djinn is actually obsessive compulsive disorder, which was poorly understood in 1969, when the story takes place. Her life is plagued by anxiety, which has only grown worse following the death of her father the previous year. After a general election, violence breaks out between the Malays and Chinese of Kuala Lumpur. Melati is narrowly saved from certain death by a Chinese woman, Auntie Bee. While violence rages outside, Melati takes shelter with Auntie Bee, Uncle Chong, and their sons, Frankie and Vincent. Melati cannot bear to be separated from her mother, and she enlists Vincent’s help to find her. It will take all of her courage to go out into a city under fire and reunite with the person she’s always tried to protect.
The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera
Apirana is chief of his Maori tribe, one of a long, unbroken chain of male leaders. When his first great-grandchild is a girl, he wants nothing to do with her. Young Kahu wants nothing more than his love and tries to learn all she can about Maori culture, despite his firm rejection of her. The book is narrated by her uncle Rawiri, who deepens his understanding of his Maori identity as he travels in Oceania. When dangerous omens wash ashore, Apirana asks: will the Maori culture live, or die? The answer lies in the girl he’s rejected. Beautifully written, this short novel deftly interweaves traditional Maori religion and the Maori language.
The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar
When Bengali-Irish teen Nishat tries to come out to her parents as a lesbian, their silence speaks volumes. Her parents think that being a lesbian is a choice, and they ask her to make a different one. But Nishat knows who she is, and her growing crush on her Brazilian-Irish classmate Flavia can’t be ignored. When the school announces a business competition, Nishat starts a henna business, excited to connect with her Bangladeshi culture. In a move that smacks of cultural appropriation, Flavia and her cousin Chyna (who happens to be Nishat’s biggest enemy) start a rival henna business. Angry as she is, Nishat can’t ignore her feelings for Flavia. But with her ultra-supportive sister Priti at her side, Nishat is determined to win this battle.
Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba. Illustrated by Miho Satake. Translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa
Fifth-grader Kazu is almost certain he saw a ghost walk out of his house, a girl wearing a white kimono with red baubles in her hair. The next day, he’s shocked to see the ghost in his class, looking alive and well. According to his classmates, Kazu and Akari have been neighbors for years, though Kazu has no memory of her. Stranger still, he learns that his home may have once been the site of the ancient Kimyō Temple. Legends have it that the Kimyō Temple could bring the dead back to life. As he uncovers more about his neighborhood’s history and the temple, he discovers that Akari’s new life is in danger. Featuring a story-within-a-story, Temple Alley Summer is a charming novel about friendship and not-so-scary ghosts.
Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Mia’s family left China and came to the United States looking for a better life. What they found was xenophobia and a daily struggle to get by. They think they’ve hit the jackpot when Mia’s parents are hired to work at the Calivista Motel, but the motel’s unscrupulous owner exploits the family. Mia faces troubles at school with bullying and being one of two Asian kids in her class – the other being the Calivista’s owner’s son. She loves to write, but her mom encourages her to focus on math, believing that Mia will never be able to write in English as well as the American kids. While her parents clean the rooms, Mia makes herself the manager of the Calivista Motel, working at the front desk. She befriends the “weeklies” who live at the motel like herself, and helps hide and support other Chinese immigrants alongside her family. Mia dreams of owning a motel, and helping her family claim a piece of the American pie. Mia is a wonderful character, and the novel has an immensely satisfying ending.