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Seeing Asian-Americans: Children's Fiction and Nonfiction on Asian Lives, Culture, and History

Adele has been a youth services librarian for 25 years and a mother to a daughter from China for 20 years.

Seeing Asian-Americans: Children's Fiction and Nonfiction on Asian Lives, Culture, and History

Seeing Asian-Americans: Children's Fiction and Nonfiction on Asian Lives, Culture, and History

Asian-American Kids Through Books and Film

Here are some of the best books and films for children I've found on Asia and Asian-Americans. You will find a wide assortment, including picture books, Chinese folk-tales and rhymes, a superhero graphic novel, and films that tell stories based on the iconic monkey king.

A Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin

A Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin

A Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin

In A Big Mooncake for Little Star, Grace Lin weaves a simple and elegant story of a little girl who loves mooncakes so much that she can’t resist taking a few bites out of an enormous mooncake every night.

The most striking thing in all of Lin’s books are the illustrations, and here she departs from that a bit, setting her story on a black background instead of the detailed patterns she is known for. The reason she uses the dark background here, of course, is to suggest that the enormous mooncake is like the moon, and every time the girl, Little Star, takes a bite the moon gets a little smaller, just like it does in the sky.

At the end, the girl has eaten the whole moon, and she and her mother bake another mooncake.

The illustrations are adorable, with the little girl dressed in black pajamas with yellow stars on them. Lin continues the black/white/yellow color scheme by including white pillows and a white stuffed bunny in the picture.

In a note on the dust cover, Lin says that the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival is her favorite Asian holiday. Once, she and her daughter were looking at pictures of mooncakes online, and some were “flat and pale.” Her daughter remarked “just like the real moon!” and Lin got the idea for this story. It’s not a Chinese folktale per se, but she tried to “imbue it with all the traits I associate with the Moon Festival--quiet joy, love, and beauty.”

Ming Goes to School

Ming Goes to School

Ming Goes to School

I was immediately charmed by the sweet watercolor illustrations in Ming Goes to School . They are absolutely charming. This is a book that will help answer questions and ease the anxiety children may have about going to school.

At the beginning, we see Ming holding hands with her father as he takes her to the schoolroom entrance (it's either a preschool or kindergarten class). The text tells us that school is where she learns a number of things: to say hello to her classmates (a diverse group of children), to wave goodbye to her dad, to play with the other children building railroad tracks, sandcastles, and making snow angels.

When we see her watching other children on the slide, but hesitating to join in, the text tells us "growing up takes time." After school has ended, we see her eyeing the slide from the classroom, and then running joyfully to it. On the last page, she sits triumphantly on the top of the slide, looking back at us.

The text is simple, yet poetic--and very short, which makes it just right for sharing with little ones with short attention spans.

The Five Forms By Barbara McClintock

The Five Forms By Barbara McClintock

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The Five Forms by Barbara McClintock

My daughter loved Jeff Stone's "Five Ancestors" chapter book series which focuses on a group of teenage kung fu monks who go on a series of adventures when their monastery is attacked. Each of the books centered on a character who specialized in a different martial arts form, Tiger, Crane, and Snake being among them. Tucked in the adventure story, my daughter learned a fair amount about China and especially the technique and philosophy of the martial arts. I wish this book The Five Forms had been around when my daughter was younger. I think she would have been fascinated by the story and perhaps encouraged to do a little martial arts training of her own.

McClintock was inspired by her son who has been involved with martial arts for quite some time. He studied at academies in Xi'an and Hubei province, and also won gold medals and an international championship. Because he served as her researcher and fact-checker, this book conveys quite a bit of information about the forms in the drawings, even though it's a relatively short story.

So, now to the book itself. Even before the title page, we see a young, pony-tailed girl pick up a book that is being offered for free on top of a library book drop. When she gets home, she reads a section that says the movements of Chinese martial arts are called forms and that many of them are named after the animals whose postures and temperaments they imitate. It also warns that if an inexperienced person tries to perform them "There could be unexpected results."

The girl, however, thinks that the forms look pretty easy, and she begins by doing Crane. Soon, though, a crane who is about twice as tall as she is comes to life beside her and starts to cause mayhem, picking up her things and tossing them about.

The resourceful girl consults the book, finds out "Leopard overpowers Crane" and proceeds to do Leopard. Children hearing the story will, of course, predict that the Leopard will come to life, and sure enough, on the next page Leopard and Crane get into a tussle that causes even more havoc. The girl looks at the book again and finds out "Snake overpowers Leopard." Soon she has a live snake in the midst. The three of them romp all through the house, strewing mayhem in a lively two-page spread. The girls perform a Dragon to tame them, and the dragon that comes to life is truly large and overpowering, but adds to the chaos. At last, the girl discovers a final form (not named after an animal), a calm and centering form which returns everything to normal.

She rushes around to put everything back in place before her mother comes home with a surprise of her own: she is taking the girl on an outing to the zoo. Children will smile when they see the girl putting the book back where she found it as she leaves for the zoo, probably figuring that it's caused her enough trouble.

McClintock's illustrations are charming and full of life. They convey the action perfectly. I also liked the endpapers, which gave the feeling of ancient Chinese brush paintings.

Lost and Found: Adele and Simon in China

Lost and Found: Adele and Simon in China

Lost and Found: Adele and Simon in China

My first thought on reading Lost and Found: Adele and Simon in China is that it would be great to read if you are going on a trip to China. Even though the story is set in 1905, many of the landmarks are the same: The Great Wall, the bamboo forests, the fishermen on the Li River.

It would also be nice to share with a group of older children, since it has short text that introduces some of the more famous places in China. You will want to allow some time at the end, though, for the children to look through the detailed drawings for the articles mentioned in the text. The book has a "Where's Waldo" aspect, in that a certain article is hidden in each drawing.

Here’s the story: Adele and Simon are two children who are traveling around 1905-era China with their uncle. Adele relates their adventures back to their mother via postcard. They start in Hog Kong where the children’s uncle buys Simon a variety of things (hat, jacket, knapsack, abacus, fan, ink box, among others). He buys Adele a Brownie camera so that she can take photos of everything. Then they travel all around china: a silkworm factory in Hagzhou, the city of Tongli near the Yangtze, Peking (Beijing), the Great Wall, the Mongolian city of Xilinhot, the Magao caves of Dunhuang, the ancient city of Xi’an, the bamboo forests near Dazhou, the monasteries of the Wudang Mountains, the cormorant fishermen on the Li River, the terraced farms of Longsheng, and then back to Hong Kong.

At each place, we see a beautifully illustrated and detailed illustration of the place along with a reproduction of a postcard and a brief note that Adele has sent describing the place. Adele also mentions an item that Simon has lost in each scene. Readers can then search the scene to see if they can find the item that Simon has lost track of.

At the very end, Adele develops the pictures she took, and finds that she has managed to take a photo of each lost item. It’s McClintock’s clever way of giving us hints to help find the items. Those hints should relieve quite a bit of frustration in looking for the items. I know they worked wonders for me.

The artwork is so nicely done that I wanted to find out more about this book, so I went to McClintock’s blog and found out quite a few interesting things about its production. She says that she spent 10 years painstakingly researching this period of China to get the artwork and description right. She drew everything by hand even meticulously recreating the stamps on the postcards. Her son, a Doctoral candidate in Chinese religious studies at Brown helped to guide her through the research.

One of the best parts of the book for me is the explanatory matter at the end of the book in which she gives more detail about each place the children visited.

She also said the Chinese mainland printer would not print the book because they didn’t like the period map for political reasons. They ended up going with a printer in Hong Kong who specializes in coffee table art books, and she is so pleased with how the colors and the artwork came out in this book.

McClintock calls this book “a labor of love,” and it is one of those books to buy for the fun it will give a child and also as an artistic keepsake for your permanent collection.

Chinese and English Nursery Rhymes by Faye-Lynn Wu

Chinese and English Nursery Rhymes by Faye-Lynn Wu

Chinese and English Nursery Rhymes by Faye-Lynn Wu

I work quite a bit with pre-schoolers, reading stories, teaching rhymes and songs, and explaining to parents how those early literacy experiences will help their children learn to read English later on.

The same holds true if you would like your child to learn Chinese. Any exposure to early rhymes and words will stay with them and help with their confidence as they realize they recognize some words they learned from the rhymes they said as a youngster. I’m actually planning to give Chinese and English Nursery Rhymes to my daughter who is studying Chinese in college. The repetition she’ll get with these short rhymes can help cement the vocabulary and grammar she has already learned.

In the introduction, Wu talks about how she read her son Mother Goose rhymes and sang her favorite Chinese songs from her childhood, a way to ease her homesickness and also pass on some of her heritage. For this book, she has grouped the English and Chinese rhymes together by theme and subject. For example, together with the “Ladybug, Fly Away Home,” rhyme, she has paired a Chinese song called “Little Bugs.” For the English song, “I Hear Thunder,” she pairs a Chinese song, “The Rain is Coming.”

What I especially like about this book is that she includes a CD of someone singing each of the songs. The voice on the CD is pleasant and clear, and there isn’t a lot of instrumental accompaniment, which puts the focus squarely on the lyrics. It’s almost impossible to replicate spoken language without hearing it first, and I’m glad she has included pronunciation we can follow.

For each Chinese song, she includes the Chinese characters, the pinyin version, and an English translation. The pictures are brightly-colored and clear. From time to time, she includes little sidebars that give information about the Chinese way of life and customs.

This is a good little basic book to have in your home library.

My First Book of Chinese Words: An ABC Rhyming Book of Chinese Language and Culture by Faye-Lynn Wu

My First Book of Chinese Words: An ABC Rhyming Book of Chinese Language and Culture by Faye-Lynn Wu

My First Book of Chinese Words: An ABC Rhyming Book of Chinese Language and Culture by Faye-Lynn Wu

Many of us would like for our children to be able to speak the Chinese language when they grow up, not only as a tie to their heritage, but also as a useful skill they can use in their work lives. I sent my daughter to a weekend school for several years during grade school. It was enough to keep her a little familiar with the language, but not really enough to teach her any kind of fluency.

Fortunately, she became quite interested in languages in high school, and after tackling Spanish, she decided to give Mandarin Chinese a go in college. She tells me that early exposure helped her out in the beginning. “I knew more than I thought I did,” she says.

That’s why I think it’s helpful to have a collection of books like My First Book of Chinese Words. It introduces a few Chinese words and characters in an easy-to-remember format.

It’s an interesting blend of English and Chinese, an alphabet book to introduce a language that has no alphabet. Of course, the format and order are familiar to English speakers, and it provides a nice framework for the concepts the book is trying to get across. So, we start with “A is for ai,” the word for love, Isn’t that a nice way to start any book? The lovely illustration shows a mother and child embracing. Though I’m not able to put the symbols in my writing here, each word shows the pinyin which indicates the tone for pronunciation.

The Monkey King:  A Classic Chinese Tale for Children

The Monkey King: A Classic Chinese Tale for Children

The Monkey King: A Classic Chinese Tale for Children by David Seow

As I understand it, the Monkey King story is a cultural touchstone for the children of China, similar to how many of the Grimm’s fairy tale stories are familiar to children in America.

I’ve heard bits and pieces of the story, and I always appreciate it when a book like The Monkey King: A Classic Chinese Tale for Children ties things together into a coherent whole. This book focuses on the beginning of the journey, when the Monkey King meets the monk Tripitaka, the Great Scripture-Seeker, a fellow with a pure heart.

The Monkey King had been imprisoned in a mountain for drinking the Jade Emperor’s Elixir of Immortality, and Tripitaka, who is on a quest to bring the Buddhist scriptures from India to China, is able to free him.

They start their journey and meet up with a boar and a river monster, both of whom the Monkey King fights until learning that they are willing to serve Tripitaka, the only person who can release them from the spells which have made them who they are.

Their next adventure is fighting off a huge eagle which has kidnapped their master, an experience that shows them how they can use their talents to work together to ward off the dangers that will come their way. The story ends with a banquet in which they tell Tripitaka that they will do their very best to work together and keep their arguments to a minimum.

So, there we have it, an origin story that explains who the Monkey King is, and how he ended up on this quest. I looked to see if the author had written any subsequent books that told the rest of the story, but I couldn’t find any. It is a rather long story, I hear, and I guess I’ll need to keep looking to find a book that tells the rest of the adventures.

The artwork is nicely done, with soft and subtle colors, but interesting angles to illustrate the scenes.

The Shadow Hero

The Shadow Hero

The Shadow Hero

The Shadow Hero is fabulous, not only for guys but for gals, as well as comic book buffs.

This book has everything you'd want in a superhero story--an unassuming young man living in Chinatown, tiger mother, bad gang boss, special cape, 1940's ambiance, and a spirit force in the form of a green turtle. It's laugh-out-loud, poignant, and (don't tell the kids) educational. I hope Yang & Liew intend to write many more.

The Forbidden Kindgom

The Forbidden Kindgom

The Forbidden Kindgom

When you have a movie like The Forbidden Kindgom starring both Jet Li and Jackie Chan, you know you’re going to be watching lots of action, humor, and high kicks. This is a movie that younger kids, teens, and grownups can enjoy. The story is that of an American boy who discovers one of the immortals (played by Chan) from Chinese mythology and ends up joining him on a quest which will also involve the Monkey King (played by Li): one of the most well-known characters in Chinese literature.

High School Musical: China

High School Musical: China

High School Musical: China

Like its American cousin, High School Musical: China is more bubblegum pop than drama. But I have to say, it's one of the rare films distributed in America that gives an inkling of what a Chinese teen’s life is like now.

Most of the videos about China that I’ve seen show people planting rice or riding bicycles through the countryside. On our most recent trip to China, we discovered that many of the bicycles are gone, replaced by motor scooters. High School Musical: China, shows a more updated version of what China is like.

The movie isn’t merely a translation of the American version. Disney employed a Chinese team: production company, writers, director, and actors. Somewhere there, underneath all the slick production numbers and flashy outfits, this is a sweet film about Shanghai teens who are working their way through conflicting expectations of family and society.

Recommendations for Books to Read to a Group for Chinese New Year

People have asked me which books are best for reading to a group of children. Here is a list of some of the best books I've found to read to school or library groups. It also works well to read one of these books if you are having a Chinese New Year party. You can find more thorough reviews of each book on the links above.

Good Chinese New Year Books for Young Children

These books, which have short blocks of text and lots of colorful illustrations, are best for young children up to first grade.

My First Chinese New Year by Karen Katz. Charming illustrations. Short text. A toddler girl tells children about the customs of Chinese New Year--getting new clothes, special foods, getting a haircut, etc.

Bringing in the New Year by Grace Lin. Lin has the most gorgeous illustrations. A rollicking dragon decorates the cover of this book. This book goes into a little more detail than the book listed above, but covers much of the same territory describing customs and traditional ways of celebrating the new year. This one is great for preschool groups ages 3-5.

Red is a Dragon by Roseanne Thong. This book talks about different colors of things that surround a young girl. What I like about it is that it includes everyday things like red watermelon, a blue ribbon the girl won at the fair, the brown hat that her grandfather wears, etc. And then, it also includes specific cultural things like the red dragon at the parade, a green jade bracelet, and so on.

Good Nonfiction Books to Read for Chinese New Year

Look What Came From China! By Harvey Miles Great photos and short text teach about things invented/developed in China – fireworks, sunglasses, compasses, and of course giant pandas

Celebrate Chinese New Year by Carolyn Otto Wonderful colorful photos and different levels of text that you can use with all ages. Read the short descriptions for a younger group and talk about the pictures. For an older group, you can read more of the explanatory text. Published by National Geographic, this book's strength is the excellent large, color photos. Customs, foods, shots of celebrations from different countries.

Good Folktales to Read for Chinese New Year

These are good if you want to emphasize certain values to the kids.

Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas by Natasha Yim: Retelling of Goldilocks with that focuses on doing what you can to help out when you make a mistake. Love the little details—rice porridge, zodiac rug, turnip cakes.

The Pandas and Their Chopsticks by Demi: This book is great if you just have a little bit of time. It contains a number of fables that are two or three pages long.

Two of Everything by Lily Toy Hong: I LOVE this story. An elderly couple discovers a pot that doubles everything they put into it. Things get complicated when the woman falls in, and two of her come out of the pot. Kids love seeing what’s going to happen next.

The Empty Pot by Demi: A story that emphasizes honesty. The emperor gives seeds to all the children to see what they can grow. All the other children bring beautiful flowers, but Ping, who is a bit of a gardener, can't get anything to grow. When he 'fesses up to the emperor, he finds out that he is the only honest one. Lovely illustrations.

The Runaway Wok by Ying Chang Compestine: A takeoff of “The Runaway Pot” that emphasizes sharing.

The Seven Chinese Sisters by Kathy Tucker: Each of the sisters has a talent that they can pool to get their youngest sister back when she is taken by a dragon. Girl power!

The Race for the Chinese Zodiac by Gabrielle Wang: Ashort re-telling of the story of the race that determine the order of the years named for different animals. The Emperor of Heaven decrees that all the animals should race across the river. Rat is sneaky and clever and ends up first, before the steady and dogged ox. Monkey, rooster and sheep figure out how to make a raft. Dragon, whom you'd expect to be first, is delayed because he stopped to help some villagers. Dog was too busy playing and pig too busy eating, which is why they ended up last in the order.

Books That Lend Themselves to Activities and Crafts

The Squiggle by Carole Lexau Schaefer A Chinese-American girl finds a length of red ribbon and imagines several shapes—the great wall, a dragon, etc. Afterwards, it’s fun to give each child a length of yarn and have them make the shapes as you re-read the book.

Dragon Dancing by Carole Lexau Schaefer A girl works with her preschool class to make her “birthday dragon.” The children draw and decorate until they have a fancy dragon. After reading the book, you can have the children decorate their own dragons with rick-rack, feathers and spangles.

Books and Videos About Asian Lives and Culture

Books and Videos About Asian Lives and Culture

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Adele Jeunette

Do you have a book suggestion that wasn't listed here? Tell others about it.

Adele Jeunette (author) on July 05, 2012:

@Stacy Birch: I'm not a great traveler either, believe me. I have a lot of food allergies, which makes it difficult. But we had a great time in China. Our daughter was healthy, and the adoption agency arranged all the transportation and guides for us. All we had to do was get our suitcases together and show up in the lobby at nine o'clock, and everything else is taken care of.

Stacy Birch on July 04, 2012:

Nice lens, I'd probably get a child from the us before I'd think about china, because I'm scared to to travel, but it is so much more easy for older couples to get a child there than here and there are so many children in china who need a good home.

anonymous on February 08, 2012:

good lens

lemonsqueezy lm on July 06, 2011:

My book club read Girl in Translation and we enjoyed it very much.

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