Explore HMH Asian American Writers and Their Cultures With These Books

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month—a time to celebrate the contributions of Asian Americans to the making and evolution of our country. Let’s take this opportunity to identify and celebrate some of the wonderful HMH authors of Asian heritage who write about what it means to them to be Asian American and share their experiences.

For Younger Readers (Pre-K–Grade 3)

Allen Say’s sumptuously illustrated books often reflect on his own experience as a person with roots in both Japan and the United States and the feelings of both loss and connection that come from belonging to two places. His Caldecott-winning Grandfather’s Journey is a masterpiece exploring memory and personal history through the years with words as well as wonderfully resonant pictures.

In Tea With Milk, Say tells the story of his American-born mother and how she defied Japanese convention by finding a job and meeting her future husband on her own. In Tree of Cranes, he describes how his mother used her memories of celebrating Christmas when she was living in the United States to enchant her young son in Japan by combining the two cultures in a way that honored both.

Say’s illustrations are beautiful and incredibly evocative of the emotions of those who feel they don’t quite fit in certain places or situations. Say illustrated the very funny book How My Parents Learned to Eat (by Ina R. Friedman) about how a young Japanese woman and an American soldier who are falling in love learn to use the utensils of the other culture in secret. It’s a lovely introduction to subtle differences between cultures and why we should respect them.  

Food is a good way for younger children to learn about different cultures and share information about their family customs. Linda Sue Park has written many books that draw on her Korean heritage, including one about cooking and eating bibimbap that has quickly become a classic: Bee-Bim Bop!

For Middle Grade Readers (Grades 4–7)

Linda Sue Park explores Korea and its history in several of her books. The Newbery Award-winning A Single Shard tells the tale of an orphan finding a home in the world of pottery-making in 12th-century Korea. Park also focuses on more recent history in When My Name was Keoko, which takes place during the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II. It can be particularly interesting to use When My Name Was Keoko to illuminate the idea that while we can celebrate all Asian heritages during this month, we must also realize they are not all the same and should not be lumped together in a single book or event. 

Park doesn’t only write about Korea, however. In Project Mulberry, she also explores the typical feeling that many immigrants and children of immigrants have of not wanting to stick out or draw attention to being “different.” The book deals with a Korean-American girl’s science fair project on growing silkworms that she completes with her white friend. This book is interesting not only for the sensitive way it deals with her feelings but also for bringing in ideas about the use of animals in scientific research and for all you learn about silk thread and embroidery.  

For Older Readers (Grades 7–12) 

Korean history under the Japanese occupation and afterwards is also explored in Sook Nyul Choi’s trilogy of novels loosely based on her own life. The Year of Impossible Goodbyes tells the story of 10-year-old Sookan and her family when the Japanese occupy Korea, and then when the Soviet army takes over at the end of World War II. In Echoes of the White Giraffe, Sookan is now 15 and living with her mother in a refugee camp and trying to have some semblance of a normal life, such as crushing on a boy. In the final installment, Gathering of Pearls, Sookan leaves Korea to attend college in the United States and must acclimate to a whole new way of life.  

In Ryan Inzana’s graphic novel Ichiro, the hero is a young teenager born in New York to a Japanese mother and American father who was killed in the Iraq War. He moves to Japan to live with his mother and grandfather and learns about the history and legends of Japan. The book turns into a surreal odyssey where myth, folklore, and history combine. The artwork is excellent and reminiscent of classical Japanese art. Ichiro’s mythical quest and his real life both remind us of the importance of understanding and overcoming history.

Many, if not most, teenagers feel alienated from the wider culture at some point in their high school years and may find solace and kindred spirits in books. That can be particularly true when you look different from your peers. Several books by HMH Asian American authors deal with the idea of being "different" and feeling the pull between two cultures—neither of which you feel completely at home in. These themes can appeal to teenagers and be great for a classroom library or summer reading lists. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri is a coming-of-age story about Gogol, the son of Indian immigrants in New England, who explores what it means to be Indian and Indian-American through his relationship with his parents and three women he loves.  

For those looking for a nonfiction read, a good choice would be Alexander Chee’s recent book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Chee writes about the formative experiences of his life, including being a student and a writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He writes about the death of his father, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the election of President Donald Trump, and more. The book is a must-read for any teen who wants to become a writer or is interested in exploring issues of identity.

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